Gardenia: A Paradox of Realness

The curtain rises. A group of elderly men dressed in suits stand and stare down the audience. “This is the last show at The Gardenia Cabaret,” a man in heels claims before introducing each man by their ebullient female show names. One by one, each shuffles forward to form a line of downtrodden figures with hunched shoulders and limited facial affect. Two individuals, very different from the seven aged men, remain in the back–a young man and a “real woman.” The last name is called. Which one will join the line? Gardenia begs the question throughout: which identity is real and which is assumed?

Inspired by the film Yo Soy Asi as well as Vanessa Van Durme herself, Gardenia, at Peak Performances through this weekend (tickets $15) is the result of a collaboration between Alain Platel, director of Ballets C de la B, and theater director Frank Van Laecke. Van Durme and her real-life transsexual and transvestite cabaret artist friends bring their poignant “realness” to life while Platel’s signature methods organize the outline of events. He effectively blurs the line between audience viewer and real-life participating voyeur while highlighting the actresses inability to communicate, perhaps symbolizing their inability to communicate as women. Their voices were at times exaggerated and altered with microphone effects. They sing, speak to and misunderstand each other in different languages. At another point, the young man gestures toward his throat that he cannot speak and later uses a translator to speak with Vanessa Van Durme.

The MC is Madame Van Durme. She summons viewers to stand in remembrance of lives lost. With one command, passive audience goer becomes active voyeur in the events to follow, which paint a wonderful 360-degree view of the human spirit as the characters transform, sing, cry, smile, pose, provoke, dance, dress, undress, and search for acceptance and love.

They waddle about in unison—an act of obedience to their aged male figures. Slowly but surely, humor, wit and floral print dresses emerge with each photographic pose, revealing individual objects of affection with each stripped layer. Later, the actresses unify in a grand metamorphosis, applying their makeup and costumes to the backdrop of Ravel’s Bolero, taking turns to strut with feminine, comical poses and statuesque walks. I found myself laughing at some poses and sometimes wondering if I should be laughing at all during more fragile displays.

The young man, Hendrick Lebon, is the only trained dancer onstage. He observes and participates in the action intermittently, neither here nor there. In one instance, he is sad and hurt–he cannot be with his family and does not understand why. Crying, the woman comes to console him and they enter into a violent struggle which leaves him with frustration, pain and sorrow.

Steven Prengels’ musical score defiantly matched obvious campy selections with an emotive ambiance. In the final scene, dressed in full costume drag, they stand in heart-rending character while Somewhere Over the Rainbow plays. This show must not end.

See here for Avia Moore’s report on Gardenia at the Festival Transámeriques in 2011.

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