In a somewhat incomprehensible turn of events, I have recently been cast in the role of Angel for an upcoming production of Jonathan Larson’s rock opera Rent. For the unfamiliar, Rent—based loosely on the Puccini opera “La Boheme”—tells the story of a year in the life of a group of young artists living in poverty under the looming shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1990’s New York City. Angel is a street drummer, fashion aficionado, and a kind, loving spirit who acts as the group’s unwavering ray of positivity during the bleakest year of their lives. Angel is also a transvestite who wears three-inch heels and a collection of dresses that hug, pop and swish like a breeze in springtime. I’ve dropped about fifteen pounds for this role, taken singing, drumming and dance lessons, and I’m re-learning how to walk (more from the hips, less from the shoulders). We start makeup tests next week.
More than singing the wrong notes, dancing in heels (you’d best believe that if there’s a table on stage, at some point I’ll be jumping onto it), more than drumming while doing all of the above, donning Angel’s garb has me incredibly anxious. I’m a firm believer in inner beauty trumping the facade every time; the body as an instrument for the deeds of the mind, the separation of brain and butt, yet I am often wholly overwhelmed by the anxiety not that I’ll look silly (the sexiness of a man in a drag not being up for debate; just look at Eddie Izzard) but that I’ll look ugly. I’ve been in dozens of plays over the years and it’s often incredibly liberating to lean into the ugly side of a character, their deeds, their actions, their appearances, but I’ve never had to be beautiful on stage, and that prospect terrifies me. Add back in a throat-paralyzing fear of singing in front of anyone and the cumulative case of nerves rivals my fear of snakes, heights, and outer space put together.
Unless, of course, I find a way to make the fear not matter.
Despite having watched The Birdcage countless times since its release in 1996, I was surprised to learn that it was directed by Mike Nichols, a filmmaker I’d come to associate with the less-than-functional relationships of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Closer, and The Graduate. For all their bickering, the film’s central characters, Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) work together beautifully; Armand owns a popular South Beach, Florida cabaret nightclub—The Birdcage—and Albert is his leading lady, the star of an incredibly popular drag show. They have a routine, a dynamic, an identity hard-won. Williams is wonderful as the straight man (ha-ha) in the duo, channeling his natural comedic timing and boundless charm into a sense of control over his wild, wooly environment. Not everyone can keep a tight rein on a nightclub filled with drag queens like Armand can, especially with such a radiant flamboyance in the spotlight. As Albert bemoans the gum-chewing of his new dance partner (“He blew a BUBBLE with his GUM while I was singing. He can’t DO THAT while I’m SINGING!”) Armand keeps things on course. “This may be a drag show,” he says, “but it still has to be a good drag show, and if possible a great drag show.” Albert is the buttercream frosting in the bag, Armand is the nozzle which shapes it into a beautiful floret, even if Albert doesn’t exactly see it that way.
“Whatever I am, he made me! I was adorable once, young and full of hope. And now look at me! I’m this short, fat, insecure, middle-aged thing!” Albert cries, refusing to go on stage.
“I made you short?” asks Armand, genuinely bewildered and more than a little exasperated.
Thank Elaine May for that little gem of dialogue, among countless others in a genuine diamond mine of a script. May’s screenplay (a remake of the French farce “La Cage Aux Folles”) is peopled by characters who seem comfortable with who they are, even if they’re not always comfortable with who other people are. Armand and Albert have a son, Val (Dan Futterman, the Oscar nominated screenwriter for Capote). Well, he’s more Armand’s son – the result of an experimental heterosexual tryst in college—and he wants to get married… to a girl, Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart). Since a farce wouldn’t be a farce without a good clashing of values, enter Mr. and Mrs. Keeley, a right-wing conservative senator (Gene Hackman) and his dutiful wife (Dianne Wiest) who has the thankless task of managing her husband’s image. Sen. Keeley has just formed the Coalition for Moral Order, an attempt to politicize the moral nature of such controversial topics as abortion and same-sex marriage. This isn’t a great time for his daughter, Barbara, to announce that she’s marrying the son of a gay cabaret owner, and so the truth is pretzeled until every character becomes someone else who is less problematic than who they really are. Got it? Neither do they.
It makes for more than a few good laughs (Albert trying to imitate John Wayne’s signature walk, the stark redecoration of Armand’s apartment), and also a number of achingly truthful moments in which Armand and Albert push back against the redesign of their identities. As Val attempts to throw draperies over anything deemed “over-the-top,” Armand spells out what this ruse is costing him: “Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle-aged fag. But I know who I am. I took me twenty years to get here.” It’s sometimes easy to forget how demanding it can be just to know who you are.
As part of the research for playing Angel, I met with representatives from a program called Gender Journeys which provides education and support for people going through transitions of gender identity. Together, we talked for a long time about the difference between discovering and claiming your own identity and what that discovery means to people you interact with on a day-to-day basis:
You can’t control the reactions of other people; they are this whole ball of issues and fears and prejudices and whatever their life was before they met you in that moment. Coming out is an important moment for any gay person, but when you’re gay, every day comes with the question ‘how many times am I going to have to come out today?’
All of the comedy of The Birdcage – from Albert’s attempts to be the perfect manly man (“Oh god, I pierced the toast!”), to his turn as a staunchly conservative wife (“The fetus is going to be aborted any way, so why not let it go down with the ship?”), from Armand and Val’s frantic attempts to control the constantly worsening dinner party with the Keeleys (“Shut up! We’re alright! It’s fine! Just shut up, goddammit! It’s alright! Stop crying! God damn you! What are you standing there for? Go! Go! Fuck the shrimp!”) to Hank Azaria’s hysterical Guatemalan housekeeper, Agador Spartacus (“You see, I never wear shoes because… they make me fall down.”) – come from people lying about who they are, because really, it’s silly to lie about who you are, isn’t it?
Of course, that’s an incredibly privileged viewpoint. My own lying about who I am comes with the safety net of belonging to the safest, most powerful demographic in human history. If my lie comes forward, I’ll still be a white male in the marketable range of age 18–49. I’ll still be able to get a job, ride the bus and go to the movies to see stories about people just like me. Many, many more don’t have that luxury to fake it without fear, or just to be who they are without running headlong into someone else’s prejudice. I asked the Gender Journeys workers how Angel might reconcile this fearful existence with her unwavering love and generosity for her fellow man. “What it probably boils down to,” they said, “is self-confidence and a bit of luck. She knows exactly who she is and she surrounds herself with good people. When you can stop letting the fear matter, then you don’t let any of the rest matter.”
What elevates The Birdcage beyond what could have been a look-at-the-man-in-a-dress comedy are the script, direction and performances that afford dignity and completeness to Albert and Armand’s relationship. We can see that they’ve found one another, and that finding has made all the difference. When Armand sends Albert away because his natural flamboyance seems insurmountable, he’s genuinely hurt. “Oh yes, another jibe, another joke at my expense,” he says on his way out the door. “Well, why not? I’m not young. I’m not new… And everyone laughs at me.” For all his camp mannerisms, Albert knows exactly how silly and over-the-top he can be, but he’s comfortable with it. He’s lived his life exactly as feels proper to him, as choices become habits, habits become routines, routines become personality, and personality becomes self. Take me, baby, or leave me. Armand tracks Albert down to a bus station bench and talks about selling his burial plot so the two can be buried in the same cemetery, next to each other, never missing a laugh. These two have every intention of living out their years together, laughing and loving, friends, companions, husbands on no one’s own terms but their own. Fearless, unapologetic, and in good company. It’s a good way to live life.
When Armand is talking to Val about redecorating to please the Keeleys, he concludes his speech by saying “Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.” I’ve started using that phrase as a mantra before doing anything as Angel. It helps me remember that the character is fearless and unapologetic in every aspect of her life; her appearance, her outfits, her sexuality, her ability to hit a high G and hold it for six bars. She is kind and forgiving to everyone, herself included. It’s been an invaluable lesson, and not just for the play. I look forward to the day that I can forget that the senator even exists, at which point I may well achieve Beyoncé levels of self-confidence. Until then, I am quite aware of how ridiculous I am. It just doesn’t matter anymore.