School is in session with a drag twist, now on stage in Toronto
Tucked away in the difficult-to-find Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, Justin Miller’s drag alter ego Pearle Harbour teaches Pearle Harbour’s Sunday School class to the audience. We are her boys and girls and other non-traditional gender identities, learning Christian theories with a dark undercurrent. The somewhat haphazard focus of the show is on the catchphrases and concepts of current progressive ideologies.
Miller is a proficient physical performer, performing gags that are as clownish as his extravagant makeup. He is very comfortable in Pearle’s body and her bedazzled military outfit — her history is as an “All-American World-Wartime gal and superstar stewardess of the airforce,” devised when the character was born in 2014. Miller’s presentation of her psyche is a dark downward spiral, but unfortunately there is something missing that confuses the trajectory of the satire.
I have a love-hate relationship with drag itself: all too often it seems to be lampooning femininity, which only supports patriarchy. But sometimes, when it’s done thoughtfully and respectfully, it can aim a queer analysis at gender. Gender is performative and socially constructed, so consciously performing it can critique social structures — when it is done right, and I do think Miller is doing it right. Pearle is an outrageous approximation of a woman, just as her character is an outrageous approximation of a leftie. While Miller’s presentation does not seem, to me, to be misogynist, unfortunately some key element is lost in the translation from Miller to Pearle to the audience.
Pearle is primarily posited as a hypocritical liberal, one of those who acts out progressivity without any critical analysis. But why, exactly? What is her motivation, unconscious or not? An idea of this would have given me some context for her diatribe. For example: when she derides trigger warnings, is the show making fun of trigger warnings, or making fun of the people who make fun of trigger warnings? I think it was possibly trying to criticize in both directions which is, in theory, possible but tricky to pull off in broad satire. I just wasn’t sure of the intent. Pearle seems to have some trauma of her own, but the only past event we know about are some misguided culturally appropriative decisions in recent Sunday Schools.
The hint of past trauma does lend credibility to Pearle’s gender identity, and in whole I do feel that Miller’s take on drag is respectful to women; the caricature is that of a church lady who espouses love while harbouring hate, not a caricature of femininity.
Miller excels at effective audience engagement. Part of this skill is knowing who in the audience to select — and due to some unfortunate circumstances I was not able to see the show until a Sunday matinee, so the pickings were slim. We were a small but appreciative audience, and Pearle made eye contact, gave easy-to-follow directions, and landed some enthusiastic interactions with the people she picked for more elaborate setups.
Miller is a great performer, and Pearle is a fascinating character. I wish I had seen her in the Rob Ford/Stephen Harper days, as I feel that extremely polemic time would have provided Miller with clearer targets. But there are still valid bulls-eyes today, even if you must learn to shoot in different directions accurately and simultaneously. I think Miller is well on the road to learning that difficult skill.
- Pearle Harbour’s Sunday School, produced by Pearle Harbour, plays until September 18th at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, 79 St George St #302
- Shows are September 8th to 10th and 15th to 17th at 8 pm, with matinees September 11th and 18th at 2 pm
- Tickets are $20 general and $15 for students + artsworkers
- Purchase tickets online
Photo provided by the company