Based on the life story of a legendary transvestite trapeze performer who became one of the artistic elite in Paris in the 1920s, Barbette, by Southern Methodist University theater professor Bill Lengfelder and actor-writer David Goodwin, goes beyond mere biography. Magic happens in this play, a rare alchemy of words, actors, movement and physical space.
The production's visual elements are deceptively simple. Inside the McKinney Avenue Contemporary's Heldt/Hall Theater, a barnlike rectangle where the audience sits slightly above the stage floor, a couple of chairs are placed stage right. A small sofa, stage left. A simple clothesline sags from two poles. But overhead, ah...there's the surprise. In front of four large canvas squares, suggesting the ceiling of a circus tent, hang two trapezes and a thick 30-foot rope. Here's where the play takes flight. And, oh, how it soars.
In a breathtaking display of aerial skills, actor Joey Steakley, as the young Barbette, seems to float on air above the audience's heads in the play's hypnotic climax. Everything leads up to the moment when Barbette performs her ballet on the "Spanish web," as it's known in the circus world, and when it comes, what transpires goes far beyond stunt and choreography. It's art, 25 feet up.
Steakley's physical confidence and grace on the trapeze and rope apparatus come after nearly a year of training just for this role. It's a marriage of character and actor that results in a tour de force for 22-year-old Steakley, a native of Snyder, Texas, and a recent SMU theater grad.
Also on high in Barbette, Jere Stevens Tulk, an aerialist trained by Barbette himself. Her dual performance as Barbette's mother, Hattie, and as Francesca Alfaretta, the circus "sister" who trained Barbette on the trapeze, is warm and funny. There's a visual surprise involved with her, too, which is too good to give away.
Barbette's real-life story is dark and complicated, but the playwrights wisely pare away all but the essentials. And what they include, they relate with clarity and wit. When darkness comes to Barbette's life, they don't allow the tragedy to become operatic. They keep a light touch, which makes Barbette's sad end even more emotionally wrenching to witness.
The title character was born Vander Clyde Broadway in Round Rock, Texas, around the turn of the 20th century. He spent much of his childhood dreaming of escape to more exotic locales. "As soon as I left the womb, I looked around and saw this wouldn't do," he says in the play.
Finishing high school as valedictorian at 14, Vander took off for a San Antonio circus, pairing up in drag for a "sister act" known as the "World Famous Aerial Queens." The gender-bending came naturally to Vander, who as a child communicated in a secret language with an unseen "angel" who he said taught him the beauty of "engendered music." He'd long been fascinated with aerial work, walking his mother's backyard clothesline like a tightrope. "I've spent my entire life struggling against the ultimatum of gravity," he says.
Eventually Vander would leave the circus and let his feminine side evolve into Barbette, a blond-wigged beauty who performed a slow striptease to the music of Wagner, dangling from a trapeze or looped into a spinning rope high above the crowd.
With his solo act, Vander Barbette, as he became known, toured the United States. In the mid-1920s, he landed in a glitzy Paris music hall as a featured performer. With his graceful and erotic aerial act, he became the talk of cafe society and a pet of an art and literary clique that included Picasso, Diaghilev and Erik Satie. As Barbette, he was photographed by Man Ray. Poet Jean Cocteau fell in love with the Barbette persona and used her in one of his experimental films (Le Sang d'un Poete), but their affair was doomed by the reality of Vander's gender. Cocteau's lasting tribute to Barbette was an essay on the nature of art, in which he compared Barbette's acrobatic blending of danger and grace with the struggle of the poet.
The struggle of Barbette's playwrights is to tell this story without sounding like a PBS documentary, and they manage to do it by using the device of an older Barbette as a narrator (played with gentle wryness by Lengfelder). He reveals his life's ups and downs to a psychiatrist (John Davies) in a series of vignettes, which then shift to the younger Barbette acting them out. We get what-happened-next facts when we need them, including tidbits like Barbette's job in the '50s coaching Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon for Some Like It Hot. (His act also was the inspiration for the movie musical Victor/Victoria.)
Angel imagery ties all the story elements together. Barbette begins with harp music heard in total darkness. Bree Sunshine Smith plays L'Ame, a silent, white-clad cherub who flutters up and around Barbette throughout the play (and it's not as hokey as it sounds). But Barbette really takes wing when the talking stops and the flying begins. With so many references to flying and falling in the first half of the play (which is performed without intermission), one begins to wonder if the air work will live up to expectations. It does. And not only is it all scary-wonderful, the playwrights use the aerial scenes as metaphor. When a young sailor (Aaron Roberts) falls in love with Barbette from her pouty image on an advertising poster, he becomes a participant in the act. And it's into the sailor's arms that young Barbette descends from her twirls and whirls aloft. That image alone makes a far lustier impact than the usual awkward stage clinch.
More than just a daring short play with a flying trapeze, Barbette also seriously addresses the issue of androgyny, notably in the breakup scene between Cocteau and Vander/Barbette. When the wig and makeup come off, the illusion is broken and no longer is his lover what Cocteau calls "the alabaster sculpture come to life." He's simply the small, thin Vander, which infuriates the poet, who violently declares that he only can love the "she" side. (Yes, it is a bit like Hedwig and the angry French.)
Leaving Paris, Barbette would spend the rest of his life suspended between male and female, like William Blake's "eternal androgyne." Injuries would render him earthbound. "We're all falling," he says in the play. "Man is humbled by gravity."
Yes, but inspired by art. And the talents of many artists--the writers (Lengfelder also directed), actors, designers and technicians--have come together to make Barbette a lofty and inspiring piece of theater.