Main Character Syndrome

Choreographed, Designed, Edited and Performed by Kelsey Rondeau for Hard/Femme Dances
All Videos shot by Steve Prue
Gown by Timothy Westbrook
Featuring the voice of Sheelah Chatman
April 8, 2022
TaDa Theater

Photo: Natalia Neuhaus

When you’re telling the story of your life, you’re always an unreliable narrator. With no one but yourself to fact-check, the truth is elusive at best- an illusion, if we’re being honest. So make it up! Make it sing, make it sparkle, pack it full of pathos and drama and candor and hope. Make a show of it. The audience will never know. Aren’t we all just faking it? And in that faking, accessing or constructing some semblance of reality? Fake it til you make it, as they say.

That seems to be the thesis of “Main Character Syndrome:” a comprehensive dive into the psyche of someone we think is Kelsey Rondeau. An autobiography in movement and sound bytes, a self-portrait in and out of drag. Conventions of drag are, in fact, perfect for this subject: Kelsey examines the personas they’ve used to define and escape themselves using the tropes of a persona-based art form. Kelsey uses drag in the grand tradition of the art form: to tell a story, to stage transformations, and to explore trauma in the best outfits possible. It’s a perfect match, and a potent one.

Kelsey slinks downstage to the swelling violins of a Western soundtrack, all smirk and guile. They plonk a glittery suitcase in front of us. Big collaged letters read, CHILDHOOD. Oh no, we cringe, what could be in there? The Disney fanfare plays and a warm light shines out of the suitcase as Kelsey unlocks it. They slam it shut. They open it— dunnn dun dun DUNDUNDUNDUUUUUUU— and we’re in the dark again. This repeats until we’re ready to rush the stage and rip the suitcase from their hands but they force the lid all the way open and grin at us with triumph and apprehension. A photo of a toddler in a dress appears behind them. The kid looks excited and scared, holding the pink fabric like somebody’s going to rip it off at any moment. It’s Kelsey.

Drag helps us understand the necessary multiplicity of self. This is really what Kelsey is getting at when they manically mouth the words uttered famously by starlets and heroines: you’re never just yourself. “Main Character Syndrome” displays a photo album of influences and coping mechanisms, taking us for a ride alongside Kelsey as they reminisce about their upbringing. The audience is asked to witness Kelsey trying themselves on: is it in the pink button-down shirtdress, the blue silk brocade slacks? Which costume isn’t really a costume? Which Kelsey is the real one, the one who will emerge from the stage door, exhausted, after the lights go out and the curtain comes down?

Photo: Natalia Neuhaus

They gesture towards an invisible wig, smooth invisible eyebrows and clutch invisible pearls. They grin and mug, vamp and twirl, prance and sashay. They chameleon from costume to costume; they are the epitome of a one-person show. This show in particular toggles between modes of drag embodiment. Kelsey dons a feather-trimmed nightgown and scrubs the stage like a forsaken housewife; Kelsey exits the stage and a film of Kelsey in a wig and a gown shimmers across the back wall. We never see this version of Kelsey in the flesh. What does this say about persona?

The movie is chaotic, vivid, incendiary. Kelsey—Kelsey in full glorious drag— trips and rages around a trashed apartment, stumbling over piles of clothes. Sometimes she’s a vision in a spangly gown; sometimes a hell’s angel in black leather assless chaps and big motorcycle boots. We’re watching them leave their body and arrive in it over and over again, putting on and taking off layers of themselves. They’re giving the full fantasy: dissociation or delusion so intense it’s complete embodiment. They’re flirting with us, morphing and mutating, sticking their ass in the air, spreading their legs, shaking their wig, smoking a cigarette, holding our gaze like a rock star while blood pours from their nose. They’re a beautiful mess. 

Photo: Steve Prue

Photo: Steve Prue

The most beautiful moments of the show were the intersections between concert dance and drag, moments when Kelsey threw themselves into a luscious pass of elegantly-constructed floorwork and suspended an abstract shape while lipsynching a complicated piece of text. That’s virtuosity. If performance is an intersection between the realness of live embodiment and the fantastical suspension of reality, then this is true performance.

“Main Character Syndrome” still seems emergent, a work in progress. The plot arc begs for complication; the narrative detours were thrilling but sometimes dead-ended. When the piece ended and the audience roared for yet another transformation, I wanted more, too.

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