“People are going to see a full drag transformation on stage. No smoke and mirrors.” Alex Mills considered this for a second, and then qualified: “Well, there will be mirrors.” He was speaking to me during a break from technical rehearsals at Synetic Theatre, where he will play the lead role in A Tale of Two Cities.
At this point, I expect some of you may be scurrying to your bookshelf, dusting off your copy of the Charles Dickens novel, and wondering how you could have forgotten that there was a drag queen among the characters in that classic tale set during the French Revolution.
Save yourself the trip; there isn’t. And Synetic isn’t doing a, pardon the expression, straight version of the novel. Everett Quinton’s 1989 play tells a somewhat different tale. In it, Mills’ character, Jerry, finds a baby outside his door one day. And what’s the best way to keep a baby from crying if you are skilled, as Jerry is, in the art of drag? Let’s see…what about acting out the famous novel, playing all of the characters?
For Mills, it must feel that this is the best of times and the worst of times. The role is gargantuan. It is an all-but-solo piece which will run, without an intermission, in the range of ninety to one hundred minutes. But balanced against the challenges are the satisfactions of the experience, about which he spoke enthusiastically.
“The biggest challenge was the text, getting the words in my brain,” Mills told me. The next step was differentiating the various characters that Jerry enacts physically. “I had to combine all of that and then pace myself. Serge said, ‘You can’t rush yourself through this process. You have to be patient with such a large piece, with the sheer amount of work. We’ll take it piece by piece so that it doesn’t overwhelm you.’”
Serge is the play’s Director, Serge Seiden, the Studio Theatre mainstay who directed its much-extended production of Bad Jews this season. Mills pointed out an interesting connection that Seiden has with the play: When Studio did the show in the early 1990s, Seiden was its Stage Manager. (Floyd King played Jerry in that production.)
In addition to Seiden, Mills is being guided by the Choreographer, Irina Tsikurishvili. “Irina is helping out with movement ideas. And she is my scene partner at times, for rehearsing.”
By the way, this isn’t entirely a one-person play. There is another actor, Vato Tsikurishvili, who, like Mills, is a familiar presence on the Synetic stage. “Vato is in the show. He’s the baby. We’re expanding on the idea of the baby in the show. That’s unique to this production.”
I asked Mills if he was a big fan of the work of Charles Dickens. “The big thing about this show is that it is heavily based on the 1935 film.” Mills explained that it is that film version, and not the original novel, that is the source for Jerry’s story-telling. “So the play is much more abbreviated than the book. It follows the structure of the movie.”
That led Mills to talk about the aesthetic that informed the approach of playwright Quinton, who sprang from the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, the fabled downtown group founded by the legendary writer-performer Charles Ludlam. Often, Ludlam and company would examine classic works of literature through the prism of 20th Century popular culture, particularly the Golden Age of Hollywood. “When it was finalized that we would be doing this show, I did research about the history of the play itself, where it sprang from.”
Stefan Brecht, in his book Queer Theatre, describes a movement that began with performances held in apartments, with set and costume pieces found on the streets. Mills elaborated: “It [the Ridiculous Theatrical Company aesthetic] sprang from necessity, and from being poor. It was a really bare bones approach as to how to tell a story. There was a sense of, ‘Anything goes. Why not? Let’s go for it.’ We’ve incorporated that sort of mentality into this production as well.”
Mills discussed the timelessness of the play’s basic themes while acknowledging the “time capsule aspect to the piece. There’s a sense of nostalgic homage to the 80s era.” He mentioned the “quirky” things about Jerry’s fashion sense, and the 80s pop music we will hear, as elements that distinguish this as “an 80s brainchild.”
Mills pointed out that attitudes have changed a lot over the twenty-five years since the play was first seen. “It’s not so shocking to see a drag queen. There is less of a shock factor now. The idea of, ‘Could this man, this cross-dressing man, be a Mom and a Father to a child — the play feels more relevant now in that sense. But I think the play works anytime.”
Speaking of holding up, how does that eighty-year-old MGM movie version hold up when viewed today? After all, even movie buffs like me, who have never watched it, may well have seen clips of its star, Ronald Coleman, intoning, “It is a far, far better thing I do now…” Mills replied, “It holds up extremely well. The story is so clear. It’s smart and well-written. It holds up better than some movies made today, which can be all spectacle and no substance. That movie has a lot of substance. The acting is great. The scope is large and impressive. The scenes of the French Revolution — they are done with no CGI. There’s a huge scene of the storming of the Bastille, with thousands upon thousands of extras.”
Mills told me that this is his first time working under Seiden’s direction. “We’ve known each other for a few years, in the sense of being friends, having mutual friends, seeing each other at openings.” And they interacted when Mills did the plays Torch Song Trilogy and 2-2 Tango at Studio while Seiden was its Producing Director. Mills’ friend Maggie Erwin was in Bad Jews, and she told Mills, “You’re going to have so much fun together. He’s great.”
It’s not unprecedented, but it is unusual, for a Synetic production to be directed by someone other than Founding Artistic Director and CEO Paata Tsikurishvili. How has Seiden fit in as that rare outside Director? “He’s been very complementary of Synetic’s work. He talks about how the process is fun and open and how it feels like a family, and he’s right about all of these things.”
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
May 13 – June 21
1800 S. Bell Street
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $20 – $60
Details and Tickets
And how does it feel for Mills? Does it feel the same to work at Synetic when Tsikurishvili is not directing? “When Paata isn’t the director, it’s a huge change — but it doesn’t feel like it! I’ve done upwards of fifteen shows with Paata and Irina, and although this is not quite the same experience — there is a sense that it’s a different experience from others. There’s something tangibly, singularly fun about the experience as a whole.” So, although he acknowledges that there is something different, he also identifies an aesthetic through-line to his past Synetic work: “That you can take more risks.” Mills described an environment open to what he described as exploring all the possibilities that should be tried, and that there’s an inclination to make “bold, physical, crazy choices.” No one, he told me, is going to see a bold choice and go, “Nyah. You’re free to explore much more” compared to other experiences he’s had.
And speaking of other experiences, since I had seen Mills in Torch Song Trilogy at Studio, I asked if he has kept in touch with his leading man from that show, Brandon Uranowitz, now the toast of New York City as a star of the hit Christopher Wheeldon musical An American in Paris. “We keep in touch periodically. He’s been incredibly busy, going to Paris [where An American in Paris debuted], being nominated for a Tony. He wished me Happy Birthday last week.”
Funnily, about the time that Ludlam and Quinton were toiling downtown at Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Torch Song Trilogy was making the trip uptown from its earliest beginnings at La Mama and drag culture was taking a big step toward entering the mainstream. Mills’ involvement with a pair of drag classics (Torch Song at Studio and now A Tale of Two Cities at Synetic) led me to ask if he was a fan of what is arguably the most prominent example of mainstreamed drag, its television competition series. Mills replied that, while not a huge super-fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, “If I’m binge-watching, I’ll go through a season in a day and a half.”
I ended by asking Mills about his future plans and whether he sees himself staying in D.C. “Oh, Lord, I don’t know. That’s a question that’s been coming up in the last year more and more. I don’t have any concrete plans. New York is a thought. Staying in D.C. and working more broadly here is an ongoing and active thing. Going back to school is a very potent idea, potentially: If I go back to school, I’m confident that that would propel me to bigger things, different things.”
But for now, his mind is concentrated on A Tale of Two Cities and the rather immense task at hand. “I’m hoping that it will be awesome. It’s just been a beast to tackle!” And with that, it was time to return to the business of keeping that baby from crying…