Alibi V.25 No.26 • June 30-July 6, 2016 

Culture Shock

Desert Scene with Drag Queens

Priscilla Queen of the Desert is everything that sparkles and mesmerizes, including love

Chris Wright, Nicholas Handley and Phillip Arran
Chris Wright, Nicholas Handley and Phillip Arran
Russel Maynor

In a parade of sequins, feathers and fringe, the titular bus—yes, she is christened “Priscilla”—makes its way through the Australian outback toward the promise of a casino, a drag show and a reunion in Alice Springs. With pit stops both intentional and accidental, Priscilla and her occupants—Tick, Adam and Bernadette, three performers departing Sydney—navigate a desolate physical journey and despite all its campy exuberance, a metaphorical journey that bears real emotional weight. In the first regional production of the musical, The Dolls—Albuquerque's most prestigious and well-loved drag troupe—take on this mammoth “journey to the heart of fabulous.”

“When I first saw the movie back in 1994 with my partner, Matt, who has since passed away, it definitely inspired us to start The Dolls. It was so revolutionary for drag,” said Ken Ansloan, who is directing and producing Albuquerque's stage adaptation of Priscilla Queen of the Desert along with Jessica Osbourne, and is also one of the founders of The Dolls. And what was so revolutionary about the story is that it shows the scope of the lives of its characters, beyond the narrow margins of their sometimes roles as drag queens. “A lot of people think this is a drag show. It is not a drag show. It is a story about life, that happens to have drag queens,” Chris Wright, who plays Tick, was quick to point out. “It was one of the first stories to show [drag queens] beyond a funny scene in a comedy … to show the pain they endure, [that] they're human,” Ansloan elaborated.

If you've seen the film then you know that the core sagas of the individual characters explore pain and alienation, but ultimately find triumph, in all its glitz and exultation. Its a story of fabulous outcasts navigating difficult emotional terrain that will likely resonate with viewers from all walks of life. “Anyone that's lived with prejudice … will relate to this story because it shows the journey you go through and how you can come up on top,” said Phillip Arran, who plays Bernadette on the stage this time around, and has a tremendous history with the show, even in the original West End production. Particularly in light of the recent horrors in Orlando, telling this story takes on new weight and importance. “One of my favorite lines,” Wright said “is 'No matter how tough we become, no matter how immune we are, it still hurts.' There've been shootings upon shootings—but it still hurts. I hope this music [of Priscilla] will create a bridge between the gay community and the straight community.” Osbourne continued on, “The message is live and let live. And love.” “Love is love,” Ansloan summed it up, “and my God, how many problems could we solve if we lived by those words? That is what Priscilla is about.”

On top of all that Priscilla Queen of the Desert is unabashedly fun, all about “the color, its about the spectacle. Every single scene has different costumes, has a different theme. Every single scene change is an explosion of color. It's massive. Absolutely massive,” Arran explained. When I asked the group to elaborate some of the things that they have planned when the show opens at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (1701 Fourth Street SW) on July 1, the answers came in cryptic, terse examples: dancing cake slices and paintbrushes, showgirls, features, turquoise and silver, lots of sequins, the Village People in various guises and all manner of exotic animals. “Plus a surprise visit from a Teletubby as well,” Osbourne added. That's not even mentioning that the whole show is sung through with a full orchestra on hand.

In a gesture of the tenderness and support that lies near the heart of Priscilla, a portion of all the proceeds will go to New Mexico AIDS Services. “Terrible things might and do happen … but always know that there will be somebody there to pick you back up, to help you through it and give you love when you need it most,” Nicholas Handley, who plays Adam, said of the show, but it just as well speaks to the entirety of the efforts of everyone involved in The Dolls' production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. There was a lull in the conversation after Handley's statement before Arran noted, “There's that word again: Love.” And that's really what it is all about. Get in on this giant group hug every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through July 24.

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