There’s really nothing like performing for your friends. On the night of MAIN CHARACTER SYNDROME, a crowd of cool queer haircuts and sparkly boots filled the TADA! Youth Theater blackbox. Emerging Artists Theatre’s New Work Series has an “audience guarantee” policy, meaning you must have one paying audience member per minute of performance to receive your cut of the box office. In practice, it looks like getting all your artsy friends into a second-floor theater near Koreatown on a weekday so you can show your evening-length work and still get paid. The upside to the audience guarantee is that the attendees are all deeply invested. For MAIN CHARACTER SYNDROME, the audience buy-in was crucial.
Kelsey clatters down the side aisle of the house and stumbles on stage, wearing a colorful sweater and green clown shoes. They clutch a large pink suitcase to their chest and stare out hopefully into the crowd as the music begins. “Let Me Entertain You,” the opening lyrics from Gypsy wash over us as Kelsey lip-synchs along. Staying true to the reference material, they run off stage and return with a rack full of clothing.
But, instead of a Gypsy-style striptease, we get something closer to an onstage quick change. Right away, Kelsey swaps their outfit for a gauzy pink babydoll negligee, a nude thong, and kneepads. Suddenly they become a demented housewife, desperately scrubbing the ground and (lip-synch) screaming about keeping the goddamn floor clean until their veins stand out. We’re introduced to the character of Kelsey: a drag performer and Stepford Wives enthusiast who’s simply desperate for our attention.
Later, they prance on stage with the briefcase to reveal the hand-stenciled, glittery word “CHILDHOOD” emblazoned on the back. The opening notes of “let me entertain you” float back into my mind as they sit down to open the box. Sure enough, Kelsey treats us to a childhood photo of them in a dress, and a recorded phone conversation with their grandmother about their childhood queerness. They ask their grandmother a series of leading questions, slowly drawing out a story about a time she found them sobbing on the floor of their childhood home. When she asked what was wrong, Kelsey revealed that their father had forbidden them to wear dresses past the age of five. It’s a chilling, heartbreaking memory, but the sudden serious tone gives it the feeling of another theatrical trick. Hidden in this section is the unfortunate truth that queer and trans people are practiced in performing their trauma, even to an audience of their own community.
To top it all off, they close out the Childhood section with a lip-synch of “Reflection” from Mulan. At this point, “Reflection” is a trans cliché, but the audience is completely sold. People cheer as they recognize the opening chords of a Disney classic. It’s not subtle, but it gets the job done: lines like “if I were truly to be myself / I would break my family’s heart” and “when will my reflection show / who I am inside” tie a neat bow on an already neat story. By the end of the lip-synch, I feel closed out of Kelsey’s narrative. They were playing to a house full of people who had lived their story and knew every lyric of the song, but chose to perform at us instead of inviting us into a singalong.
More interesting are the untold stories that haunt MAIN CHARACTER SYNDROME. Rondeau’s movement vocabulary is slippery and full of tricks. The floorwork is what gives it away: they’re obviously a release technique junkie. Drag and postmodern dance have been canonized separately, but they attract similar communities. Both forms are havens for outcasts, for people running from a mainstream that doesn’t reflect their reality. It’s not that release technique is queer, it’s that the people who end up doing it often run to it because they’ve been rejected elsewhere. In creating a show chock-full of references, Kelsey is defining queerness or transness not as the acts themselves, but as a shared understanding of culture.
After the dive into childhood, we speed triumphantly into a homemade drag homage to “I Need a Man” by Eurythmics. Tightly timed and sexy, this section shows Kelsey’s eye for editing at its best. The film is set inside an apartment, where we watch Kelsey recreate Annie Lennox’s iconic bleached-blond, silver gown look, then deconstruct it. The dress comes off to reveal sparkling pasties; a strap-on makes an appearance. Eventually we even lose the wig. It’s a middle finger to the repressive father from the previous scene. Kelsey shows us they don’t even have to wear the dress for us to know they’re the woman of the hour.
Still, the moment of the show that touched me most was not a carefully-constructed punchline, but an honest mistake. Just before the big finale, Kelsey runs off stage for one final quick change. The music swells, and their hands pop out from behind a curtain holding a party popper. We cheer, and then the disembodied hands fumble, and the popper doesn’t go off. Kelsey pulls and readjusts, but the music is going and this was supposed to be a quick bit, so they ditch the prop and run out on stage in a new dress holding an Oscar statue. In those few seconds, we watched them fail, get back on their feet, and come out on the other side smiling in a silk ballgown.
For a performer who tried to give us their all in every second of the show, it was nice to watch the iconic façade slip away, and to love them all the more for it.