Hits and Misses in PRISCILLA

Hits and Misses in PRISCILLA

(l-r) Jordan Phelps, Honey West, and Luke Meierdiercks. Photo by Paul Goyette.

Review: PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT at Pride Films and Plays

By Bec Willett

When the film THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT was produced in the early ‘90s, it became an iconic piece of Australian cinema. I know this not just because I have the Internet, but because I was an Australian teen at the time.

The musical, taken from the film, features a hero’s journey evocative of early white Australian explorers – not dissimilar to those early white American pioneers. What makes this story important is that the heroes are two drag queens and a trans woman (albeit played by straight cis men in the film) who conquer the harsh desert and narrow-minded belligerent locals, resulting in their growth as people.

This film became popular because of its score of classic pop songs from The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” through to “I Say A Little Prayer.” The film became iconic because it changed how the Australian psyche perceived and treated the excluded and misrepresented LGBTQ+ communities. By giving humanity to these identities and experiences, many Australians were forced to challenge their conservative value systems. Since then, strides have been made in both countries to address the acceptance and valuing of all voices.

Companies like Pride Films and Plays are at the heart of these strides, particularly in the Chicago theater community. Upon hearing about the ethnically diverse cast, and that for the first time (according to c0-director David Zak) trans actress Honey West would play the role of trans woman Bernadette, I was delighted. Unfortunately, this humanity and voice that I had hoped for was only afforded to a portion of the characters in this production.

While the LGBTQ+ characters in this production were considered and complex, the portrayal of Cynthia, Bob’s ‘mail order’ Filipina wife, was not. Instead, she was portrayed as a sex starved, mentally unstable woman who, when drunk, could not help herself from going to the local bar and ejecting ping-pong balls from her vagina into the crowd. This representation of a Filipina was considered an issue even back in the ‘90s when the original film was made. When it was addressed by the Centre for Filipino Concerns with the film’s producer Al Clark, he dismissed it, deeming her a “misfit” like the rest of the cast. But instead of this misfit having a voice, in both the film and this production she is ridiculed. Especially as a company that champions diverse voices, if the choice is made to produce a musical with this history, there is an ethical responsibility to subvert such offensive stereotypes of both women and the Filipino community.

Costume designer John Nasca had moments of brilliance – in particular an inventive sequined headdress featuring paint brushes comes to mind. Unfortunately, the same attention was not paid when it came to the representation of the Aboriginal man, whose costume was that of a “generic native” with a studded loincloth, an axe on a stick, and a metal brass toned necklace. Even a quick Google search returns results that make it evident that this is not correct traditional dress for an Indigenous Australian, and that he would not have misrepresented his culture – even for tour groups – in such a way. There are things that can be forgone when presenting Australian plays for an American audience — especially when representing a culture that has so long been mistreated and oppressed by the white people of Australia — respect is not one of them.

In this production, the idea of Australia – particularly the landscape – was also too generalized and inconsistent, which under-served the story. The harsh landscape, and by association its people, are what form the antagonist and driving tension of this narrative. While the performances and direction at times showed understanding of the monolithic vastness of the Australian desert, the scenic design did not. The old bus, given the name Priscilla, and thus the namesake of the show, was decidedly underwhelming. Of course, it was meant to be beaten up, but its resemblance to a bus was minimal, neither being the correct shape, material, or size and without a clear meaning accompanying these choices.

The backdrop to this was formed by a balcony from which were hanging a hodge-podge array of satin and sparkly curtains, serving more as masking than to communicate meaning. This design lacked the evocative imagery so prevalent in the film, of the beaten but sparkling beacon of self-love crossing a vast landscape despite all odds.

Outside of these issues, the performances ranged from passable to excellent. The Divas played by Rebecca Coleman, Tuesdai B. Perry, and Jill Sesso served to glue the story together. These actors excelled at doing just that, deftly leading the ensemble through the score. Tick/Mitzi’s (Jordan Phelps) vocals were also strong, and sincerely motivated, but the non-singing portion of the performance lacked this same connection. Honey West’s was most striking and sincere as Bernadette in those moments where she was able to connect with the material. The most convincing performance was from Luke Meierdiercks as the buoyant and sassy Adam/Felicia. Meierdiercks, both charismatic and thoroughly prepared, effectively straddled the line between the obnoxious brat, and the vulnerable young man struggling to live as his true self. Particularly of note, in both direction and performance, was the scene in which Adam/Felicia was attacked by hateful men of the rough mining town Coober Pedy. This was a moment where every person in the room understood the gravity of the danger and fear of what it meant to be who he was, and where he was, at the time he was.

One of the last anthems of PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT is Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” There were times when this production epitomized this, and then times when it undermined it.

About author

Bec Willett

Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.