Princess Boy Wonder, performed by George Fowler (aka Hugo Grrrl), Directed by Lori Leigh, BATS Theatre online live stream event, 20 March 2020.
In a sad and desperate week in which shows were canceled and theatres closed all over New Zealand in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was one glimmer of hope: BATS Theatre’s live-stream of George Fowler’s one-person show Princess Boy Wonder. In over 40 years of theatre-going in the capital city, I’d never experienced anything like this. Only last week I was attending New Zealand Festival productions in packed venues like the Opera House, Shed 6 and the Michael Fowler Centre. Then, last Sunday it was announced that all shows on the final day of the festival were canceled. This included Strasbourg 1518which I had booked for at 4 pm on Sunday and had been looking forward to for months. On Monday night I was among a small, socially distanced audience at Circa Studio watching Cian Gardner’s superbly intimate, precise, and moving solo show Sorry for your Loss. On Wednesday, BATS announced that the theatre was closing and that Princess Boy Wonder, along with all other upcoming shows, was canceled. By Friday Circa was closed as well. The age-old mantra “the show must go on” changed to “the show must go online”. On Friday night I watched my first live-streamed theatre performance.
A link from the BATS website took me to a payment page where I typed in my details to pay $15. Almost immediately my laptop came live screening the Random Stage at BATS, festooned with theatrical curtains illuminated by sweeping, multi-colored lights, with cheerful pop queer anthems blasting from the speakers. Under the circumstances, this felt metaphoric, an image of the theatrical surviving against the odds. The fixed camera was placed centrally in the seating block, covering the entire stage, giving a similar view to that if you were seated near the back of the auditorium. I could see some of the small invited live audience chatting animatedly in the front rows. At 6.30 sharp, the show began.
Like Sorry for your Loss, this is a solo show about an intimate personal journey, in this case, George Fowler’s journey from being a CIS-gender lesbian woman to a trans man. The show begins with George performing a Loie Fuller-style routine to the song “I’m Coming Out”, animating a glorious rainbow costume that flies and soars through space in response to his movement. Also known as drag king Hugo Grrrl, George’s charismatic presence immediately engages me despite the social distancing of the technology. He jokes that the show is about his coming out but urges us not to “come out” (because of the pandemic). For the next hour or so George lights up my laptop screen with a multi-faceted performance that is joyful, celebratory, hilariously funny, poignant and personal. George explores social attitudes to gender, the harm caused by gender norms and the different dimensions of coming out of the closet. The performance is framed by references to Disney’s Pinocchio with multiple resonances for George’s personal story including the symbolism of being “puppet” by society and the desire to become a “real boy”.
Lori Leigh’s direction is as inventively fluid as George’s gender jokes, featuring expert transitions and juxtapositions. George is a shape-shifter in more ways than one. Rapid costume changes act as a metaphor for gender fluidity and a celebration of non-binary identity-forming. George expertly interacts with the live audience who respond with frequent laughter and cheering. The performance is tightly co-scripted by Fowler and Leigh with witty word-play calling attention to the role language plays in defining social expectations and norms. Transgressive takes on Charles Dickens and Walt Disney take us into a glorious universe of camp and gender-mixing drag. A mix of cabaret and storytelling, this production illustrates the power of live theatre to advance social dialogues about culture, gender, and sexuality. However, the pizzazz, visual playfulness and entertainment value of the show do not overwhelm the potency of its emotional and political impact. As Leigh says, one important dimension of the show is about “loving yourself, which in return offers you the honesty, bravery, generosity, and space to love others”. The revelation of black-clad stagehands at one point reminds us that, like many solo shows, this is clearly a team enterprise. Members of the livestream operating team include BATS Technical Facilities Manager Brynne Tasker-Poland, who is responsible for masterminding the event, learning technology she has never used before (the other operators are Tane Hipango and Benny Jennings). At the curtain call, the live audience rises to their feet in a standing ovation, and we are clapping and cheering from our sofa, thrilled that we were able to connect live and digital in this way.
I had previously booked to see Princess Boy Wonder on Friday night, so am grateful that I got to experience this highly original show online if not in person. Apart from the occasional milli-second freeze, the transmission was flawless. I thank the staff at BATS Theatre for the incredible effort it must have taken to organize this screening so quickly. I thank George for his courage in performing the show under such dire circumstances. Two days after the screening, Princess Boy Wonderwon Grand Design and Melbourne Fringe Tour Ready Awards at the New Zealand Fringe Festival Awards, as well as receiving nominations for Outstanding Solo Performer and Best in Fringe. George Fowler’s personal-is-political his/her/story seemed even more compelling and relevant because of the circumstances under which we experienced it. For me, as someone who has studied theatre in Aotearoa/New Zealand for decades, this felt like a historic moment. All over the country, performing artists have seen their livelihoods, which are based on people gathering together in person, evaporate literally overnight. In the face of unprecedented insecurity for performing artists and the industries that facilitate their work, this live-stream performance of Princess Boy Wondergave some sense of hope that theatre can continue in some form through the uncertain days ahead.
This review was originally posted on Theatreview www.theatreview.org.nz Reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.