CAMBRIDGE — During a recent rehearsal, Company One Theatre cast members worked with choreographer Alexander Davis to build a climactic scene in “Wig Out!,” Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ode to drag culture and a redefinition of family drama.
At the center of the number, playing a manipulative “drag house mother” named Serena, was Nick Dussault, former theater critic and arts reporter for the Metro and longtime culture commentator on FOX-25 TV, who moved to New York to pursue a performing career two years ago.
“I was struggling to find the right person to cast as Serena,” says Summer Williams, who is directing the production, presented in collaboration with American Repertory Theater, at Oberon April 26-May 13. “Then I realized I need Joan Rivers — someone who can walk into a room and own it. Someone who can deliver a little bit of an edge, but also have enough experience to give Serena a little vulnerability and not make her a one-note villain.”
Williams says she’s never seen Dussault perform, but “When I think of Nick, I think of Joan Rivers.”
“Wig Out!” blends McCraney’s sharp ear for sassy dialogue with his love of the classics and his insight into the struggle LGBTQ individuals endure to find a home and create a family, whatever that might look like. The action of the play follows a “meet cute” moment on the subway that draws one character into the complicated social dynamics of two “drag house families”: the House of Light and the House of Di’abolique, not-so-subtle representatives of good and evil. Personal rivalries culminate when Serena, as head of the House of Di’abolique, calls for a last-minute Cinderella Ball, a competition in which the winner of the drag performance will determine the fate of both houses.
McCraney is now best known for his screenplay for “Moonlight,” which won the 2017 Oscar for best picture, and the compelling “Brother/Sister” trilogy, which Company One produced in 2011.
Written in 2008, “Wig Out!” includes several lip-synced numbers performed in drag, including Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” and Emilie Autumn’s “I Want My Innocence Back.”
“This is really a theatrical experience, which is why I’m thrilled Oberon said yes to hosting us,” Williams says. “We need to transport the audience into this world, while getting close to these individuals, and the environment of the club really adds to the feel of the performances at the ball.”
Company One’s entire season, she says, has been built around amplifying a wide range of black male voices. The combination of white, black, and brown queer voices in “Wig Out!” she says, is embodied in part through a mix of young performers as well as the more experienced presence of Dussault and Juan Carlos Pinedo, who plays Lucian, “father” of the House of Light.
“There’s a little more gravitas that comes from age, and helps contextualize a period when HIV-AIDS laid waste to the population,” Williams says.
Dussault, who says the comparison to Rivers is the highest compliment he’s ever received, says performing with Company One has been a wonderful opportunity.
“I’ve performed lots of cabaret and stand-up, but it’s always been my show,” he says. “I’m more comfortable if I screw up my own joke. To understand the things Serena says, I had to think about her backstory. I imagined she was the Jennifer Aniston character in the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie love triangle, and that’s what made her so vindictive.”
In addition to digging into the character, Dussault says he invested a lot of time into the technical work involved in learning how to lip sync for his two big numbers.
“I have sung enough in cabaret acts to understand tempo and rhythm,” he says, “but there’s a cadence individual singers have recorded that’s not yours naturally. Layering that on top of the character and choreography is a lot, but I’m here to learn and grow, and trust Summer to guide me through it.”
New director for Gold Dust Orphans
For the first time in nearly 20 years, Larry Coen won’t be directing a show for Ryan Landry and Gold Dust Orphans. That task now falls to Robin JaVonne Smith, who is stepping into the shoes of the much-mourned director, who died Jan. 31. But she’s prepared: In the past decade she’s performed with the Orphans and Beau Jest Moving Theater, two companies that counted Coen as an integral partner.
“Broklahomo” is a musical mashup of “Oklahoma” and “Brokeback Mountain” as seen through Landry’s hilariously skewed vision.
“I haven’t had a lot of directing experience,” says Smith, “but I understand the Gold Dust Orphans’ style. Ryan sees these shows as movies playing in his head, and our job, as company members, is to bring that vision to the stage.”
Smith also has a small role in “Broklahomo”, playing Chastity, a member of the Cher-o-kee tribe.
While Smith takes care of the details, Landry can focus on the big picture.
“I’m like a Roomba,” says Landry. “My mind just bumps into things and then changes direction. Robin, like Larry, has a way of calming me and keeping me focused.”
“Robin and I both knew him so well,” says Landry of Cohen. “Sometimes we just know what Larry would tell us to do. Mostly that means we say to each other, ‘Larry would say no.’”
“Broklahomo” runs April 28-May 27 at Machine, 1254 Boylston St. Tickets $49-$100. www.brownpapertickets.com.
Presented by Company One Theatre in collaboration with American Repertory Theater. At Oberon, Cambridge, April 26-May 13. Tickets $25-$35. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.