Chicago Theatre Review
A Boy and His Drag Queen
Princess Mary Demands Your Attention – Bailiwick Chicago
A young, gay African American named Amari realizes that his life is stagnating. Things begin to change, however, soon after he encounters Princess Mary, a drag queen who motivates him to live life his own way and on his own terms. Inhibited by his controlling mother, affectionately called “Countess Bolkonski,” advised by Stacy Neighbors, an older, long-time gay friend, as well as being influenced, pushed and encouraged by his posse of three new club friends, Amari gradually evolves into the person he was born to become.
Aaron Holland’s newest play, which is both somewhat autobiographical, as well as inspired by a year-long plunge into Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is entertaining. It just doesn’t really break any new ground. This be-all-you-can-be tale, set in and around Richmond, VA, at the beginning of the new millennium, tells a mostly familiar, somewhat inspirational parable about living up to one’s potential. The play doesn’t really live up to its own potential, or, certainly, its title. It relies upon a strong presence in the character of Princess Mary which, in this production, is missing. As the titular royal drag queen, Baron L. Clay, Jr. just doesn’t exude the magnetism and star quality that the role demands. Without charisma, Mr. Clay’s performance lacks the sensation and dazzle necessary to convincingly lift Amari out of his hum-drum life and into the fabulousness to which he’s destined.
Stronger performances are to be found in several other actors. Armand Fields, a likable young actor who may be familiar to Chicago and Milwaukee audiences, is both appealing and convincing as Amari. Mr. Fields works hard to make this role his own and he leaves the playgoer with a complex individual who, after a lengthy journey, finally finds himself. He’s complemented by Rus Rainear’s endearing portrayal of Stacy Neighbors, the flamboyant entrepreneur who’s become Amari’s surrogate father, friend and all-knowing confidant. This is one of those roles that could turn outrageously camp, but Mr. Rainear tightens the reins just enough to keep Stacy grounded in reality, while still letting his freak flag fly. This is Rainear at his very best. Of Amari’s three new friends, handsome David Kaplinsky brings buckets of charm and sass to Christiano, while Omer Abbas Salem makes Bastian a very funny, over-the-top force to be admired and enjoyed. TJ Crawford doesn’t quite hit the mark as the third member of this gay trio of helpful fairy godmothers, but he has the potential to eventually grow into the role. Pam Mack as the Countess has some good moments, but her performance feels mostly one note.
Aaron Holland’s latest play, while entertaining, isn’t quite the standout one expects from the title. There’s something there that hasn’t been explored yet, but with additional work this play could become a staple for LGBT theatre companies everywhere searching for exciting, new scripts. Lili-Anne Brown has directed this production with a looser hand than usual, resulting in an uneven feel to the performances. While many of her actors stand out, others don’t go as far as they should and get by with performances a few steps short of what might be achieved. Technically the production doesn’t sound many bells and whistles either, although Patrick Bley’s music and sound design creates the necessary tone throughout. Perhaps, as it was for Amari’s own journey, time will improve both the play and this production, leaving it a much stronger experience for future audiences.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 15-February 21 by Bailiwick Chicago at the Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-871-3000 or by going to www.victorygardens.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.