Gardenia: Playing for Realposted on March 12th, 2012 by Jedediah Wheeler
When I attended a performance of Gardenia in Montreal during the groundbreaking Festival TransAmériques, I was humbled by the gripping authenticity of the show’s performers and the intimately personal quality of their performances. Much of theater is predicated on fooling an audience into believing a staged reality. But what happens when the performers live a life of pretend in order to be accepted socially?
In shows like La Cage aux Folles, men play women for effect, for entertainment, and only passing reference is made to the dilemmas of cross-dressing. Movies also have won large audiences when leading men have found it expedient to play women (think Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie and Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire). But what happens when a man chooses to be a woman in order to survive, to be real, and being entertaining is what is demanded of them by those who are watching—that is, by us?
At the center of Gardenia is an elaborate runway showcase set to Ravel’s Bolero. Each performer takes to the red carpet dressed in male clothing and finishes dressed as a female fantasy figure (imagine Judy Garland or Mae West). By the end of this musical transformation, the bravura dress-up was not the put-on: those male suits seemed shamelessly fake. In Gardenia, we see performers who discovered, in their real lives, that being male was something other than themselves. To be themselves, they needed to be female, but they also “played” female to outrageous effect in the world of drag cabarets. I asked myself, which is the pretend persona? Being a man or being a woman? Or, maybe, is it both?
While watching Gardenia, I laughed and cried and only later questioned whether my projection of acceptable behavior had kept these performances safely in check within acceptable stereotypes. Do I consider a man in drag to be a real man? Or was this a case of a man using drag to find herself? Were my expectations as an audience member complicit in a performer’s choice to take on a persona like Garland or West? Is this show for a leering audience or for an inner circle of the like minded, protecting themselves from predators?
In the end, the performers were neither Garland nor West but just themselves: people I wanted to know for real.
Jedediah Wheeler is Executive Director of Arts & Cultural Programming at Montclair State University.