For years, Brian Peterson did all the things an aspiring thespian was supposed to do. He participated in community theater growing up in Fresno, Calif. After settling in with his family in Mandeville, he took a few years of high school drama. He joined the chorus for a while, and even performed with a group at Carnegie Hall. He studied on theater scholarships at both Southeastern and Northwestern Louisiana universities.
He even took a hiatus and learned how to cut hair as a professional fall-back option -- an endeavor that lasted a decade.
But it wasn't until he put on a dress and a wig that he finally started feeling comfortable as an actor. His first theatrical performance in drag, singing Tom Lehrer's "The Masochism Tango" in Running With Scissors' second launching of the Kiki Le Bon Bon cabaret show, led to a co-headline role as the vengeful, scorned headmistress Beatrice French in RWS' The Beguiled parody, Hell's Belles. That inspired many of the troupe's fans used to watching co-founder Flynn De Marco and frequent guest Roy Haylock (aka Bianca Del Rio) to wonder, "Just who the hell is that drag queen?"
Who was he, indeed.
"Growing up as a gay kid and being picked on for being effeminate, there was always that fear when going onstage that that effeminate quality would bleed through what I was doing," explains the 33-year-old. "I couldn't be in the moment. In drag, I don't have to worry about being effeminate, I completely let go and not think about it."
Brian Peterson couldn't be more in the moment as he prepares for his greatest acting challenge: playing Maggie opposite De Marco as Brick in Running With Scissors' presentation of the Tennessee Williams, Pussy on the House -- a riff on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The production features many of the usual suspects, including Dorian Rush, Elizabeth Pearce, Jim Jeske and Rusty Tennant. It's also a landmark for RWS, and not just because it's the troupe's first full-cast, original production in a year; it's also the start of what RWS hopes will be an ongoing exchange program with Provincetown, Mass.-based theater troupe Gold Dust Orphans; the co-founder, Ryan Landry, wrote the script, and the troupe will present its own version simultaneously in Boston. RWS hopes to respond in kind with one of its own scripts.
In a sense, Peterson is coming full circle with this comedy, with a script that feels more like Charles Ludlam's bittersweet Camille than a blatantly camp parody. Peterson will repeat the parallel of playing in drag opposite De Marco playing it "straight," but also hopes to create a different set of sparks than the two ignited in what felt like a drag-off in last year's Tennessee Williams spoof, the Richard Read/De Marco-penned I Suddenly Know What You Did Last Summer. Their second-act ham-fest showdown, with Peterson as under-talented actress/dedicated drunk Moira Judd and De Marco as grande dame Maxine Skeffington, was a drag queen's dream.
They both bring their own sense of physicality to their drag roles. With De Marco, as Marguerite in Camille and in Hedwig and the Angry Inch particularly, there has been a tragedy undercutting the bitchiness. With Peterson, it's almost like watching the boy next door play dress-up in his mother's closet. For underneath the broad makeup, accentuating arched eyebrows and puffy red lips is a cherub. It doesn't hurt that Peterson is one of the most naturally funny members of the troupe.
"They complement one another in that Brian is able to project this air of vulnerability when he's in roles like that," says Read. "And Flynn, it's not the opposite of vulnerable, but he's got a gravitas, a really nice ability to be a center. I think they're both capable of playing any number of characters."
Peterson's vulnerability -- and range -- will be both tested and on display as he takes on a Maggie (slip and all) to De Marco's Brick. Landry's script at first glance reads quite similar to Williams' text, which presents the actors with the challenge of creating their own comedic or dramatic atmosphere.
"It's a combination of comedy and spoof, but not in the wink-at-the-audience kind of way," Peterson says. "I love that about this, because it's what I was hungering for, to stretch my legs a bit and do something more serious."
Gambit Weekly theater critic and playwright Dalt Wonk suffered a brain injury on Feb. 29, just a day before he was to attend a photography exhibit by his wife, Josephine Sacabo, in New York City. Wonk has been recovering in the Intensive Care Unit at Charity Hospital.
His column, "Proscenium," will return when he does. In the meantime, the entire staff at Gambit Weekly wishes Dalt a speedy recovery and appreciates all the support and concern the artistic community has shown his wife and family during this time. .
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