When I read that the Guys in Disguise production With Bells On, written and directed by Darrin Hagen, was set in an elevator, I thought it might be mostly witty dialogue from two talking heads, because how much action could there actually be in an elevator. Then, remembering that it was Guys in Disguise, I decided it would be two talking heads in interesting costumes.
Well, there was witty dialogue, and there were interesting costumes. There was also a surprising amount of action and body language which added to the delightful characterizations and built the story. The publicity posters show the obvious contrast between the two characters, Ted, a middle-aged guy in a suit (James Hamilton), and Natasha, a very tall drag performer in an astonishing costume (Paul Welch), so it was easy to see that the premise of the show would be people from different worlds thrown together. I loved the ways that the characters quickly turned out to be more than archetypes, and the credible ways that they connected despite Ted’s social awkwardness and Natasha’s fragile sarcasm. I wasn’t sure, at first, whether Ted realised that Natasha was male, and I was hugely relieved when that discovery didn’t prompt a 20th-century over-the-top homophobic freakout à la Cage aux Folles, just some awkwardness and self-criticism. It was clear that Natasha had experienced her share of hurtful responses and was braced for another one, but that wasn’t who Ted was. In a longer play or in a short story, I would have hoped to learn more about the backgrounds sketched out for both characters, especially why they were both alone at this point in their lives. I’m a sucker for credible happy endings, and this one brought tears to my eyes. There was nothing at all in the story about Christmas except for Natasha’s costume, and I liked that. The program notes (written in the first person but not signed) say “This play is for anyone who was left out of holiday celebrations because they didn’t fit in”. Although I have some experience of that myself, I had not thought recently about what a ubiquitous experience that would be in some communities, and how shared experience of rejection can lead to connection.
The elevator set design worked well, and the sound and lighting conveyed changes as needed. Natasha’s costume was just fun. I noticed the contrast between her awkward steps in platform heels when walking or standing and her smooth dance moves in the same shoes when she was in performance mode. Her whole face changed when she was lip-synching for an imaginary audience, compared to when she was protecting herself from a stranger and then getting to know him.
This was my first encounter with Guys in Disguise – except for encountering some performers parading and handbilling at the Fringe – and I would definitely go to more of their shows. It was also my first visit to the Roxy Theatre, a classic movie theatre refurbished into a proscenium-stage performing-arts space with a beautiful wooden floor and comfortable seats. It is more intimate than Zeidler Hall or Victoria School auditorium.
There’s one more performance of With Bells On this afternoon. I’m also hoping to make it to Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit and to Best Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever, to add to last weekend’s viewing of Nutcracker Unhinged as this year’s collection of untraditional Christmas theatre. I haven’t seen A Christmas Carol on the stage and I haven’t seen Nutcracker live either, but I bet I can see them some other year!