Oscar Wilde once famously noted, “One can survive everything nowadays except death.” But the prospect of death often drives us to reach for the stars, like Montreal playwright Puelo Deir has with his musical comedy Holy Tranity! Plus, what do pop icons Will Ferrell and Gordon Lightfoot have in common besides both being erroneously pronounced dead by the media? They both spoke with Bugs first!
by Richard Burnett
I call him the Larry Kramer of Montreal because whenever I need a good old-fashioned loudmouth gay activist quote for a news story, I know I can always call Montreal gay living legend Puelo Deir.
Deir, that fabulous bitch, got her start in Montreal hosting Queer Corps on CKUT community radio two lifetimes ago, produced the benefit at Montreal’s Parc Lafontaine that helped pay the $5,000 in fines of those arrested at that city’s Stonewall, Sex Garage, in the hot summer of 1990. Deir also co-founded Montreal’s world-renowned Divers/Cité Festival with Suzanne Girard; and for years produced the Queer Comics showcase at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival.
When he left the city in the late 1990s to make more money in Toronto – where he was chief publicist for both Star TV and Space TV – Deir found his groove. But he nearly lost his soul, so returned to Montreal where for the past decade he has worked closely behind-the-scenes with a Hollywood who’s-who, among others 2012 Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer, Omar Sharif, Emmy-winner Laura Linney, Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, Whoopi Goldberg, Paul Giamatti (on Barney’s Version) and the late Heath Ledger.
Puelo was also the set publicist for the 2007 Will Ferrell film Blades of Glory. The day news broke from Hollywood that Ferrell had died in a car crash, I immediately speed-dialed Puelo who held his cell phone up and asked Ferrell, who was standing next to him, “Are you dead?”
“The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated!” Ferrell cracked.
Unbelievably, I was also the first journalist to interview Gordon Lightfoot the day after Canwest reported on Feb. 18, 2010, that the Canadian music icon had died.
“I was in my car driving from the dentist with the radio on when the DJ said I was dead!” Mr. Lightfoot told me. “It became an obituary. Then they played a strain of If You Could Read My Mind. It gave me a bit of a shock. I put my foot on the gas and got to [my] office and the phone was lit up like a Christmas tree! It was also weird for my kids – my eldest daughter got very emotional that night.”
Anyway, recent health problems forced Deir to recognize that – with the exception of his 2004 Montreal Fringe Festival one-homo show You’ve Got to be Kidding! – for the last two decades he’s been working on the wrong side of the spotlight.
“Between chemo therapy, hip replacement surgery and looking death squarely in the face – when faced with all of that stuff, I began to realize that I had better do what I have always wanted to do,” the 40-something Deir told me last summer. “We have just the here and now to do what we have always dreamed of doing. I went off on that other showbiz path. But inside I was meant to tell stories. And that’s what I’m doing now.”
So Deir hired a talented and good-looking Montreal cast – actors Cameron Sedgwick, Nicholas Santillo and Antonio Bavaro (fresh from his 2011 Montreal Fringe triumph in Hedwig & The Angry Inch) – to co-star in his musical comedy Holy Tranity!, directed by David di Giovanni.
Holy Tranity! tells the tale of three young adults – trans woman Gracie (played by Bavaro), twinkie $anto (Santillo)and soldier Michael (Sedgwick) just before the onslaught of AIDS changed gay life forever, something Deir witnessed first-hand in Montreal on the front lines when he started Divers/Cité
The cast reading of Holy Tranity! at the Robert Gill Theatre at last summer’s Toronto Fringe Festival wowed critics, notably the up-and-coming Bavaro who not only stole the spotlight but this past January was nominated for a 2011 Toronto My Theatre Award for “Best Performance in a Reading” (see the full list of winners who were announced on April 10, by clicking here).
“To step into the 170-seat Robert Gill Theatre was pretty overwhelming for me because it was a beautiful, full-functioning theatre with all the bells and whistles,” Puelo told me this week. “We were not performing in a black box at the back of some bar. You know, the Toronto Fringe is a very different animal than, say, the Montreal Fringe. A lot of these productions could go directly into mainstream theatres – which a lot of them hope to do – and so it was pretty awesome that Holy Tranity! got solid reviews that said our reading had more heart and passion than many fully-fledged plays.”
My Entertainment World editor Kelly Bedard raved, “Antonio Bavaro’s brilliantly nuanced performance in the staged reading of Puelo Deir’s Holy Tranity! was a highlight of the 2011 Toronto Fringe… As the transgendered Gracie, Bavaro transformed completely with the help of almost no visual aids and created the most complex and heartwarmingly empathetic character on stage.”
Deir concurs. “Antonio didn’t overplay that character which is what most people would want to do. He made her a very natural and compassionate character.”
“We rehearsed for a couple of weeks in Montreal, then went to Toronto for a dress rehearsal and a performance,” Bavaro told My Entertainment World. “As it was a reading, we developed the play mostly being seated; any creative idea that came up was added into the blocking. Puelo gave David lots of liberty too, in order for us to create the characters, and was extremely supportive throughout the process…
As for playing trans woman Gracie, Bavaro – whose real-life drag alter-ego is called Connie Lingua – says, “As long as I have a pair of heels on, I can pretty much switch instantly into a feminine character. It’s about how you feel more than how you look, and the hair, makeup and costume elements of drag tend to add more uncomfortableness. Without it, I felt more grounded as Gracie, more honest.”
As for Puelo, he is delighted with Holy Tranity’s Toronto reception and is currently fleshing out the play, which he says will premiere in Montreal in 2013. “I still don’t think we tell these kinds of stories enough, at least not from our perspective here in Quebec,” he says. “The [final version of the] play will integrate more timelines specific to Quebec that weren’t in the original production.”
But will Antonio Bavaro – currently starring as Jesus in the Concordia University Theatre Department’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot – be back?
Deir hopes so. “I was so proud of Antonio and the rest of the cast. They showed immense commitment. It was a reading, after all. But they all showed up on time and were ready. And they wowed the critics.”
Essential buttplug If you’re in Montreal, then check out the Montreal Fringe Festival’s annual benefit auction with guest auctioneers Jeremy Hechtman (Artistic and Executive Director of MainLine Theatre) and Aaron George (Artistic Director of the Montreal Shakespeare Company), plus performances from such special guests as burlesque dancer Miss Sugarpuss.
Items up for auction include a Fringe Superpass, Montreal Improv Classes, a year of St-Ambroise beer, Barefoot Wines Goodies, Haunted Hillbilly tickets from the Centaur, Just For Laughs Comic Pro passes, MainLine 4Play Card & Rehearsal space, Montreal Shakespeare Theatre Company Tickets, artwork by Jeremy Price, Robin Henderson's Jazz Hands gift certificate, QDF workshops, photo shoots, show tickets, restaurant gift certificates, fun excursions and more.
The April 20 auction begins at 8 p.m. Tickets at the door - Pay-What-You-Can, although tax receipts will be given for all donations of $20 and more. Click here for the auction’s Facebook event page.
Also, Miss Sugarpuss (a.k.a. Montreal singer/actor Holly Gauthier-Frankel) stars in Miss Sugarpuss Must Die! which won “Best Montreal Fringe Festival Production” at the 2010 Frankie Awards. Miss Sugarpuss Must Die! headlines the Segal Centre on April 21 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15. Click here for more info.