Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Abominable Showman, June 8, 2013

Stripper’s Fortune
Legendary Canadian gay activist Puelo Deir borrowed heavily from his own wild life of sex, drugs, hustling and stripping to create the critically-acclaimed musical drama Holy Tranity! that is now poised to wow audiences at the 2013 Montreal Fringe Festival. Plus, Larry Kramer weighs in …
by Richard Burnett
(all photos courtesy of Plato Productions unless indicated)

The very buff Jerome Gagnon is the cover boy of the June 2013 issue of Fugues magazine, French Canada’s national gay glossy. But the former stripper has seen it all before, in dark, cruisy strip clubs where all eyes were on him on and off the stage.

“I’ve never been uncomfortable with attention,” Gagnon says frankly, “but – oh my – I remember the first time I stripped. Coming from a deeply religious Catholic background, it was the craziest thing I did, and after my performance, when I walked offstage, I cried. I believed that what I had just done was really wrong and against my values. But I was rebelling against my family and my background. So it got easier and a day or two later I was fine.”

Gagnon portrays the teenage stripper Santo$ in the new musical drama Holy Tranity! that is poised to become the underground hit of the 2013 Montreal Fringe. The play is set in the neon glam 1980s and, as the production notes state, “follows 17-year-old naïve runaway Jude (a.k.a Santo$) as he explores his sexuality in a time when gay men were dying from a mysterious disease. Flat broke and dreaming of stardom, Jude auditions to be a stripper at the tawdry and near-bankrupt Rainbow Lounge in Montreal’s Gay Village. There he befriends the divine Ms. Gracie, transgender queen and the club’s star attraction, and her friend Michael, an ex-military mechanic (played by Simon Therrien) who soon turns AIDS activist. Guilt-laden by his staunch Catholic upbringing and utterly rejected by his close-knit family, Jude grows dependent on a self-destructive cocktail of drugs and anonymous sex. Will the unconditional love of Michael, or the motherly caring of Gracie save him?”

The musical is directed by David di Giovanni and features Gagnon stripping in many X-rated numbers, as well as Antonio Bavaro (a.k.a. Alberta native and Montreal drag legend-in-the-making Connie Lingua) as transwoman Gracie singing some diva standards, including Judy Garland’s Get Happy

“I really relate to Jude/Santo$ because we both come from a very religious background, we both started stripping at an early age and we both got lost in this world,” Gagnon says.  “We have a lot in common.”

Not just with each other, but also with Canada’s legendary gay and AIDS activist Puelo Deir, who in 1993 co-founded Montreal’s famed Divers/Cite Festival (which with Black and Blue firmly put Montreal on the international gay map). (cont'd)
Puelo and Cast
Deir later became a successful showbiz publicist, working on star-studded Hollywood films as well as creating and co-producing the Just For Laughs Festival’s hit groundbreaking comedy show Queer Comics.

But Deir only ended up in Montreal because he escaped Ottawa for the bright lights of the big city. 

“I ran away from home at 14, I stripped, I was a rent boy, so I identify a lot with the character of Santo$,” says Deir. “But there’s a lot of me in Michael and Gracie as well – they were the kind of people who raised me in real life when I was a teenager in Montreal. They took on parental roles in my life.”

Bavaro as Gracie
Deir looks at me and says, “I had a ‘Duh!’ moment with you last year when we went to Cleopatra’s” – the last remaining establishment on The Main from Montreal’s storied Sin-City era. 

Cleopatra’s has been a showbar since 1893 and, Deir says, “I thought she was closing. So when we walked in there together one night, my play came alive because Cleopatra’s was one of the places I went to when I was a teenager. It was there that I met the trans and drags who took me under their wing. It seemed so appropriate that the first real mounting of the play should happen at Cleopatra’s, the last vestige of Montreal’s red-light district.”

Deir’s play had its first public reading at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival where Bavaro wowed local theatre critics with his portrayal of Gracie. But this 2013 version is its first full production, and clearly Deir has plans to take it well beyond the Montreal Fringe.

“This play is a few years in the making, after our [critically-acclaimed] reading at the [2011] Toronto Fringe,” Bavaro says. “The rehearsals so far have been magic, and have generated good buzz and energy. It’s funny and campy and sexy and runs the gamut of emotions. I really identify with the issues raised in this play: Trans and gender issues, what is gay and what is queer, and of course AIDS, HIV and bar life, things that are still very present today. This is not just another historical gay play about the 80s.”

Says Gagnon, “While this is a period piece about the 1980s, the gay issues it raises – drug use and anonymous sex – are still relevant today. Drugs are still prevalent in the gay community. They’re everywhere. I also encountered drugs in the stripping world. Everybody was always on something.”

Simon Therrien (via Facebook)
As Deir tells me himself, “Unfortunately not much has changed since the 1980s. It’s true that in the 20 years since I co-founded Divers/Cite, we have come a long way in terms of legal rights like marriage, pensions, adoption. But I never feel comfortable resting on our laurels because these achievements can so easily be taken away. And over the last two decades, kids have been coming out much earlier than before and that’s brought new issues to the forefront, like bullying and teen suicide.”

I have known Deir for two decades now, first as a comrade-in-arms in the gay trenches, then in later years as the loudmouth activist who was never afraid to give me a no-holds-barred quote for a newspaper story I was writing. 

Puelo sat on the boards of ACCM (AIDS Community Care Montreal) and Image et Nation (Montreal’s LGBT film festival), and was Director General of the Table de concertation des gais et lesbiennes de Montréal, a formal negotiating voice for the gay and lesbian community in 1993 during the historic Quebec Human Rights Commission public hearings on discrimination and violence against gay and lesbian people (La Table is now known as Le Conseil Québécois LGBT).

In other words – since he wrote, performed and produced his one-man show You’ve Got To Be Kidding! at the 2004 Montreal Fringe Festival – I’ve long called cranky loudmouth Puelo the Larry Kramer of Montreal.

“I’m no Larry Kramer,” Puelo says. “He is much more venomous and he is a true trailblazer. He started ACT UP, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, was the lonely voice in the wind. I only accidentally became involved with ACT UP in Montreal at the 1989 International AIDS Conference.”

In many ways that historic AIDS conference also inspired Deir to write Holy Tranity!

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Puelo continues. “I was riding my bike outside the Palais des Congres [convention centre] and saw all these hot looking boys going towards the Palais. So I followed them and there were tables all around of HIV and community groups, and one activist told me, ‘You have to go in. There’s going to be a huge demonstration. Go in and be a part of it.’ 

“So I went in because I was very good at getting into places I wasn’t supposed to get into. I had never been an activist before then, but I was losing so many friends to AIDS at the time, and that day changed my life forever. It made me realize that no one was going to take care of us. So we had to take care of ourselves.”

As Larry Kramer himself once told me, “Montreal was very important because of what we accomplished. We [activists] took over the opening plenary session at the AIDS conference. There was also a lot of behind-the-scenes work done there that led to parallel track [AIDS treatments].”

Deir says he’s no Larry Kramer, but cites the famed playwright in his moving manifesto which audiences can read in the Playbill when Holy Tranity! begins its run at Cleopatra’s on June 18. “Please know that Larry Kramer inspired this note,” Deir writes.

Puelo is delighted with his talented cast (Bavaro, Gagnon and widely-respected TV actor Simon Therrien as Michael), his technical crew and director David di Giovanni. “I’m surrounded by so many talented young people, and we’ve all grown so much since our readings at the Toronto Fringe in 2011. These kids have a totally different perspective of [the play’s] time period than I do, and the energy they bring to the play has really helped get this project off the ground.”

Meanwhile, Bavaro says, “Gracie is a goddess to me, and I’m very honoured to be playing her.”

As for former stripper and Dawson College theatre grad Jerome Gagnon, who plays the stripper Santo$, he says, “I think I was made for this role. We’re all having a lot of fun and I’m really excited for opening day.”

Holy Tranity! at Café Cléopatra (1230 Saint-Laurent, in the 2nd Floor showbar). Five shows during the Montreal Fringe Festival: June 18-19-20-22-23. Surf to

Holy Tranity at the Fringe-for-All

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.