Drag takes centre stage in colourful Stratford Festival production

Drag queens are bringing a splash of colour to Canada’s biggest theatre festival, in a classic play with modern relevance.

Some of Canada’s most prominent drag queens consulted on Stratford Festivals’ La Cage aux Folles, which features an all-male chorus made up of nine men performing in 10 different drag outfits. 

The musical is based on a French play of the same name, which won six Tony Awards after premiering on Broadway in 1983 and was also the source for the Oscar-nominated 1996 film The Birdcage.

The show’s drag consultant Justin Miller, also known by his performance name Pearl Harbour, says he is “immensely proud” to bring his craft to Stratford, Ont. 

The plot follows a young couple who want to get married, but have parents from very different backgrounds — one an ultra-conservative family, and another with a patriarch named Albin, who is the star performer at a drag club in Saint-Tropez, France. 

Georges, the club’s manager and Albin’s partner, decides to feign being straight when his son arrives with his fiancée and her conservative parents. 

A stagehand hangs a faux fur prop after a rehearsal for the stage production of La Cage aux Folles, at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ont. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

‘It’s unfortunate that it’s still radical’

“This show broke such ground in the early [1980s], which we have to remember was at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, as well. There was such othering and such fear. And this is a beautiful love story between two men, radical at its time,” Miller said. 

“It’s unfortunate that it’s still radical, when we look into the villainization and the scapegoating that the drag community — and the trans community, especially — have endured at the hands of bad-faith actors who are looking to scare people.”

Reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought new levels of mainstream acceptance to drag and seen the art form explode in popularity in recent years. It’s a stark contrast to 1973, when the original French play by Jean Poiret came out, and the world of drag queens was a mystery to most outsiders. 

At the same time, public backlash against drag queens and trans rights has been ramping up, along with anti-LGBTQ legislation in North America, casting stories about queer culture in a new light as they combat a moral panic that seems intent to push them back into darkness.

A man sits in a dressing room, smiling.
Actor Steve Ross sits for a portrait in his dressing room behind the scenes of the stage production of La Cage aux Folles. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Steve Ross, who plays lead character Albin, says it feels like the perfect time to reprise the story.

“We are setting it in 1978, so it’s almost a period piece now. But I think the messages are still the same, and it’s so vital,” Ross said.

Beyond the queer themes and the glitz and glamour, he says the production is primarily a relatable, down-to-earth tale about the inner lives of people in love.

‘We’re not freaks on display’

“The beauty of it is that we’re not freaks on display, as you have in so many plays, but it’s such smart writing, and we’re just people who happen to be gay,” Ross said.

“We are telling a story about two guys who have been together for 20 years and are just trying to live their life and be a success.”

Stratford was one of the few festivals to post a surplus in 2023, a year when numerous major arts festivals either lost money, scaled back programming or shut down entirely, due in part to rising expenses and ongoing recovery from COVID-19 pandemic closures. 

Directors at the Shakespearean theatre festival have attributed its continued success in part to evolving programming that attracts younger and more diverse audiences, saying 30 per cent of Stratford’s audience last year was new.

Director Thom Allison says the festival has allowed him to bring gay people, trans people and racialized people into an experience that shows them they belong.

At the same time, he says it would be unfair to assume a production like La Cage aux Folles, with its balance of “outrageous comedy” and “incredible glamour,” is not appealing to Stratford’s traditionally older audiences, who may have had less exposure to drag as an art form.

A man sits alone in a theatre.
Director Thom Allison behind the scenes of the stage production of La Cage aux Folles at the Avon Theatre. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

There was no discussion of removing any risque parts, he said. 

“[We are] being authentic to what the world is and being able to play into the world of gay life in the ’70s, and the rambunctiousness of that and the sexuality of that gets to be in there,” Allison said.

“But along with that is this incredible story of family. And I don’t have to be white to watch a story of a white family that I saw most of my life growing up in theatre. I don’t have to be straight to watch straight stories and understand what that means. Everyone understands family, community, love and what it means.”

Shakespearean roots

Drag has roots in traditional Shakespearean theatre, says Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino, when commercial acting companies were made up entirely of men. He says this production takes that tradition and evolves it in a way that is entertaining and illuminating.

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At its heart, he says La Cage aux Folles at its heart is about our ability to care for each other despite our differences.

A man sits on a bench shaded by trees.
Artistic director Antoni Cimolino sits for a portrait on the grounds of the Stratford Festival. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“I think what we need in the world today from theatre is something that affirms our humanity and our connections between people and uplifts us,” he said.

“I feel like that’s really important right now. And La Cage does that.”

La Cage aux Folles runs through Oct. 26 at Avon Theatre in Stratford.

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