Local actors Nate Santana and Danni Smith are used to being judged by their onstage performances. But now the two will be facing judgements on their abilities to properly embody characters who must respectably be feminine or butch in the regional premieres of two acclaimed shows.
Santana stars in The Legend of Georgia McBride at Skokie's Norhtlight Theatre. Matthew Lopez's 2015 off-Broadway comedy with music concerns Casey, a straight male Elvis Presley impersonator living in Florida's panhandle. When all of Casey's regular performing gigs start drying up, he considers doing female drag when artistes like Miss Tracy Mills ( Sean Blake ) and Rexy ( Jeff Kurysz ) come onto the scene.
Meanwhile at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, Smith plays the lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel of Dykes to Watch Out For fame in Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's musical Fun Home. Though the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of Bechdel's graphic memoir briefly played Chicago last year as part of a national tour, the Victory Gardens version of Fun Home is the first homegrown production.
Santana has never done female drag before. But it was something he was always curious about.
"The drag part of it I wanted to do, but I just didn't want to do it just because. I wanted to have a story that needed to be told so it would make sense with who I am," Santana said. "Mathew Lopez does a great job as you follow Casey. You really get to see how he is overwhelmed by drag at first, and then how he grows to appreciate the art form and truly understand what it means to people not just in the performative context, but in their everyday life."
Santana finds an interesting parallel for his character of Casey being an Elvis impersonator. Santana has to play hyper-masculine as Elvis, even though his outfit can be seen as pure showbiz camp.
"They're fitting me for a jumpsuit, and it's just so big and over the top," Santana said about one of Rachel Laritz's costume designs. "It's so pristine with the white and the glitter and sequins."
Santana also points out that Casey's drag persona, "Georgia McBride," takes initial inspiration from country music stars like Dolly Parton. It makes sense, because Parton is famed for her exaggerated femininity ( numerous drag queens have cited Parton as a major muse ).
"[Casey] is not a homophobic or transphobic character. He's given an opportunity to learn from different people who wouldn't necessarily be in his same space and have dialogue about what makes them tick," Santana said. "That's really the thing that I take away from this play."
The role of Alison Bechdel in Fun Home was one that Danni Smith particularly sought out. It's a groundbreaking role in the first major Broadway musical to feature an out, butch lesbian as its leading character.
"This show means a lot to a lot of people and I come into the rehearsal room every day feeling an incredible sense of responsibility in taking good care of the material," Smith said. "The whole team does."
But to be exact, Fun Home features three Alison Bechdels. Smith is Alison at age 43 working on her 2006 memoir about her truncated relationship to her closeted bisexual dad, Bruce ( Rob Lindley ). Hannah Starr plays "Medium Alison" as the cartoonist's memories of being a college student, while "Small Alison" is alternated by child actresses Sage Elliot Harper and Stella Hoyt.
Recently the national tour of Fun Home came in for criticism by many lesbians online. They felt that the casting of Kate Shindle, a former Miss America and AIDS advocacy campaigner, was a betrayal. That's because Shindle's look and costuming as Bechdel weren't nearly as butch as Beth Malone who originated the role.
Lesbian Fun Home librettist Lisa Kron posted a letter on the musical's Facebook page to address the criticism.
"From the moment I began adapting Alison Bechdel's book, I felt a keen responsibility not just to retain the undiluted butchness of the main character, but also to give audiences a way to see the same swaggery, sexy power I see when I look at a butch woman," Kron said. "I love Kate's version of Alison. I feel good about the change in her costume. You may disagree. But was this decision, or any other, ever made to 'de-butchify' the show? No way. Not on this femme's watch."
Smith said the "butchness" controversy hasn't come into play so far in rehearsals. Instead, Smith said the focus has been on the daring butch anthem "Ring of Keys" ( sung by Small Alison ), while she herself has been studying every snippet she can find of the actual Bechdel.
"Having watched so many videos of her, I'm working to capture the essence of her mannerisms and her nature as an active listenerwhile also trying to make sure that the focus is always on the story, and that her need to find answers in revisiting these moments in her life is an active journey," Smith said. "We're still exploring and layering those things in and I'm really excited to see where we go."
The Legend of Georgia McBride runs from Thursday, Sept. 14, through Sunday, Oct. 22, at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. The official press opening is 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 22. Tickets are $30-$57 for previews ( through Sept. 21 ), and $30-$81 during the regular run; call 847-673-6300 or visit Northlight.org .
Fun Home runs from Tuesday, Sept. 19, through Sunday, Nov. 12, at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. The official press opening is Wednesday, Sept. 27. Regular run performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays with 3 p.m. matinees Sundays. Tickets are $15-$54 for previews ( through Sept. 26 ), and $15-$75 during the regular run; call 773-871-3000 or visit VictoryGardens.org .