'Legend Of Georgia McBride' At TheaterWorks: An Up-Close Celebration Of Drag

Matthew Lopez’s empowering comedy “The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a celebration of drag culture. At the intimate TheaterWorks, which will be staging the play March 16 through April 29, that means that the some of the most exacting work in the production will come from the people designing the actors’ hair, makeup and costumes.

The upbeat play, from the author of much darker fare such as “The Whipping Man,” “Reverberation” and “Somewhere” (all of which have been seen at Hartford Stage), charts the journey of a young man named Casey. His career as an Elvis Presley impersonator is faltering. To support his wife and child, Casey turns to a new career as a drag queen, supported in this new endeavor by a couple of seasoned club queens.

The play switches regularly from the club environment to scenes in which the characters are not in drag. It details the elaborate making-up and dressing-up process.

In separate phone interviews last week, show costume designer Leon Dobkowski, makeup and wig designer Mark Adam Rampmeyer and choreographer Ralph Perkins described the comedy’s special challenges. The show is directed by TheaterWorks Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero, who’s worked with all the designers before.

“Most drag shows I’ve experienced are in tiny spaces, so [TheaterWorks’ stage] suits it well,” says Perkins, who was a “choreographic consultant” for the just-as-tightly confined musical “Next to Normal” at TheaterWorks last year. “You learn how to maneuver the space. I’ve worked all sizes of stages for most of my career.” Even the Goodspeed, where Perkins choreographed Ruggiero’s production of the drag-themed musical “La Cage Aux Folles” in 2015, is a very small stage, considering how much has to happen on it. “You need every inch of it,” Perkins says.

TheaterWorks has reverted back to its accustomed thrust stage from the unique arena style it created for its most recent show, “Constellations.” Scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III (who did “Thoroughly Modern Millie” last year at the Goodspeed Opera House) has added a smaller performance area at the front of the space, which brings the drag action even closer to the audience.

Perkins and Ruggiero met years ago when they were both involved in a Hartt School production of “West Side Story.” Now, “we’re close friends,” Perkins says. “Like brothers. We have a shorthand.” Perkins continues to teach full time at Hartt, where he is the director of the Dance for Theater program. His professional experience includes years as a performer and choreographer in Las Vegas.

“I did drag in my college years,” Perkins recalls. “I would do amateur nights. I was good at it because I could dance in a pair of spike heels.”

“Drag is its own brand of show business,” Perkins says. “Yet there are a lot of styles of drag. In this show, the three characters who do drag are very different. It’s very much an individuated art form.” For that reason, the choreographer has found he needs to “let the actors find their own personas” before he can fully help them with their dance moves.

The play’s star, Austin Thomas, “has never done drag before,” Perkins says. “He’s tall and handsome. Rob said to me, ‘You make him a woman.’ The whole play is about this character’s journey to becoming a drag queen, so this rehearsal period, for [Thomas], is the show.”

Costume designer Leon Dobkowski feels the same need to check in regularly with the cast to see if their needs have changed as they find their characters.

“We had fittings in New York before the rehearsals began in Hartford, then I came up last week to do more fittings and I’ll be coming again this week,” the designer says. “It’s an interesting show. Things come up when you’re in the room. It’s not as cut and dry as a lot of shows. With drag, you’re kind of creating another personality. You have to let the actors find that first. Then I catch up.”

Dobkowski, who graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2011 (where he worked on a stylish Yale Rep production of “Romeo and Juliet”) and worked with Ruggiero previously on “South Pacific” at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 2014, says “I have not done drag before. I’ve done a few shows that had cross dressing in them, but that’s not equivalent.” For research, he visited the Bushwig Festival, an annual drag gathering in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“There are many different kinds of drag styles,” Dobkowski says. “Some are flashy and and shiny, some are edgy, some are classic or vintage. This play takes place in modern Florida, right now. It’s not ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ — these people are on a budget.”

Wig and makeup designer Mark Adam Rampmeyer is another veteran of the Goodspeed’s “La Cage Aux Folles.” He worked there more recently with Ruggiero on “Rags,” and serves as the Goodspeed’s costume rental manager. Rampmeyer created the cartoonish hair and makeup for TheaterWorks’ popular holiday show “Christmas on the Rocks.” He agrees that the designers need to work hand-in-hand with performers.

“I went to a rehearsal and in one scene I saw an actor flip their hair up a lot. I asked him about it, and he said it felt like what the character would do. That completely altered what that wig will be. That’s how this starts. It’s how these become put-together, well-thought-out characters. Hair and makeup tell the story.”

“Drag is its own art form,” Rampmeyer says. “When I lived in Manhattan I had a couple of friends who would perform drag. Most queens do their own make-up. They don’t have a team of people. It’s an individual process.”

The wigs Rampmeyer is using range from “custom-made to the kind of stuff you find at Party City.” The numerous times when characters must quickly change from one look to another can be difficult to plan, but are also exhilarating. “There are a couple of montages that will blow your socks off. This is a play, but in terms of how it moves, it feels like a musical.”

“We’re telling a story about how these characters develop as well. That’s the challenge, and the exciting part. We don’t have time to pin curl. We might have to use headbands with magnets. The actors are either coming on in drag or changing in front of our eyes. We use 24 or 25 wigs during the evening. It’s not like ‘La Cage,’ where the performers can get ready an hour before the show.

“The more I’ve watched the rehearsals, the more I feel that this play really couldn’t be any more timely than it is right now. It’s about acceptance, asking ‘Is what I am OK in the world?’ This really is the right piece at the right time.

THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE runs March 16 through April 29 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm.; Friday and Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. There is no Saturday matinee on March 17. 860-527-7838 and theaterworkshartford.org.

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