Vestiges of a less enlightened time tarnish ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’

Mercury Theater revival of the drag-queen musical has some fun with music and costumes but can’t overcome the 16-year-old script’s shallow portrayals.

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Priscilla_cast.jpg

Shaun White (from left), Josh Houghton and Honey West star in the Mercury Theater revival of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.”

Brett Beiner Photography

The art of drag has reached an interesting, bifurcated moment in American culture of late.

On the one hand, drag queens have never been more mainstream, thanks to the explosive popularity of the “RuPaul’s Drag Race” franchise and its ilk. Once confined to traditionally gay spaces, drag has become more and more prevalent across the past decade. Queens featured on television can be big enough draws to tour major concert venues, where they attract straight and gay fans alike. Even small towns, in certain areas of the country, can foster an eager audience for the likes of a “drag brunch.”

Recently, though, right-wing forces haveraised objections to drag in the public square, particularly singling out kid-friendly events like “drag queen story hours.” Just this weekend, a bakery and café in suburban McHenry County canceled a planned family-friendly drag show in the face of threats to the business delivered both online and in-person; even after the event was canceled, an assailant smashed the bakery’s windows and spray-painted hateful slogans on its walls.

‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’

‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’

When: Through Sept. 11

Where: Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave.

Tickets: $39–$85

Info: mercurytheaterchicago.com

Run time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission

I don’t mean to overthink it, but this is the tug-of-war environment in which the Mercury Theater opens its new revival of the drag-queen musical “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.”

And since “Priscilla” itself exists as a sort of dual-period piece — the musical opened in Sydney in 2006 (a lifetime ago in terms of LGBTQ politics), based on the similarly named Australian film that premiered in 1994 (basically the Jurassic Age) — it’s hard not to look at this show through the lens of whether it meets our current moment.

“Naur,” I can hear some fans objecting (in TikTok’s delightful transliteration of an Aussie-accented “no”). “Priscilla” is just a fun-loving jukebox musical about three drag performers on a road trip through the Outback, and I should judge it as such. Fair enough; let’s try to take it on the merits.

The story is rather slight: Tick, a drag queen based in Sydney, is summoned back to rural Alice Springs by his ex-wife, Marion, who has decided it’s time he meet his young son. Conveniently, Marion also manages the Alice Springs casino, and can offer Tick a contract for a floor show.

Tick recruits two friends to join the journey: Bernadette, a transgender woman mourning the loss of a young lover, and Adam, a pretty young thing who secures the trio’s transportation, an old bus they christen Priscilla.

The trio doesn’t face any real obstacles during the trip, apart from a half-hearted mob that threatens Adam after he goes looking for trouble in a backwoods town — and, it has to be noted, Tick later blames Adam for putting all of them in harm’s way by not taking stock of their surroundings.

It’s here that director Christopher Chase Carter’s staging starts to fumble, but it’s really the script that can’t hold water.

The show’s stars — Josh Houghton as Tick, Honey West as Bernadette and Shaun White as Adam — give hints of potentially warm, appealing performances. Houghton, a Chicago newcomer, comes closest to crafting a fully human character out of the scraps and shards offered by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott’s book.

Ultimately, though, the show renders these queens as shallow caricatures, often reinforcing old, hurtful stereotypes. Adam taunts Bernadette, for instance, with tawdry references to her surgery and calling her by her former name. The scene in which Adam gets “caught” as a man similarly bolsters dangerous clichés of drag queens or trans people as malicious deceivers.

There’s some fun to be had in the show’s repurposing of ’70s and ’80s pop tunes, and costume designer Bob Kuhn gets aptly inventive with the drag queens’ attire. But the budget allotted to costumes appears to have been taken away from Jonathan Berg-Einhorn’s scenic design; on the Mercury’s smallish stage, Carter’s production feels crowded, busy and cheap. And in a modern context, the show’s attitudes about gender aren’t so much transgressive as regressive. What a drag.

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