The Commedia Rapunzel Finds a New Audience for Drag

The Commedia Rapunzel Cast.

Courtesy of the artists.

The house lights go down and a cheer goes up from the impatient audience. It’s Saturday, the end of a long week, and everyone here is ready to let loose—literally crawling over the furniture. So in many ways, this drag show is starting just like any other nightlife spectacle. Except that the time is 11 a.m. and the spectators are school-aged children.

Playwright Sam LaFrage has found an unlikely new audience for drag—kids. A boisterous new production of his Commedia Rapunzel at New York City’s SoHo Playhouse offers children a drag-infused, play-within-a-play version of the titular fairy tale, anchored by a redneck queen and a message about self-acceptance. Rapunzel isn’t a pure drag show by any means. It’s a bizarre blend of traditional children’s theater and scag drag (i.e., rough, intentionally unconvincing) as if a Commedia dell’Arte troupe spent a week studying Bushwig. But it’s a delightful example of how drag can bring its message of pride, confidence, and irreverence beyond the queer community to audiences of all stripes and ages.

Like any good drag show, The Commedia Rapunzel operates on two levels. On the surface, it’s a slapstick comedy full of pratfalls and Broadway dance moves that keep kids entertained while the fairy tale unfolds. But it also provides a trail of more adult humor to keep parents and other grown-up audience members on their toes. In the play’s opening moments, LaFrage wanders through the darkened theater in character, goading the audience into engaging with him. “You can talk to us, you know,” he says in mock exasperation, looking wildly at the baffled kids around him. “This ain’t Angels in America.” The kids giggle at his physical antics. Their parents release a did he just say that? gasp. With this simple line, LaFrage sets the drag-theater tone, creating a space where bad-behavior is welcome from performers and audience members alike. And all this before he even dons his wig.

In Rapunzel, LaFrage celebrates the best of drag-style performance—provocation, camp, gender-bending—but not because he’s trying to introduce kids to drag, or win new audiences for queens. Drag is part of Rapunzel because for LaFrage, the art of drag is inextricably linked with the play’s message of self-acceptance. “The character that I play in the show, the Cobbler’s Wife, is based on my own white-trash drag character” LaFrage told me, referencing his previously existing persona Aunt Viv. “As a drag queen, I’ve always done white-trash because, as a kid in South Carolina, those were my bullies. Drag gave me a chance to pick on them for a while, and to embrace what makes me different. Which is really what the play’s about.”

In or out of drag, each character in Rapunzel must come to grips with being the odd man out. A witch struggles with bitterness when treated as a social pariah. Rapunzel struggles with her needy personality after a lifetime of isolation in a lofty tower. But the most memorable moments of self-acceptance are centered on LaFrage’s character Arlecchino, an actor vying for a role in Rapunzel, the play within this play. When Arlecchino is assigned by the leader of his theater troupe to play a drag version of Rapunzel’s redneck mother, he accepts the news with a delighted, fey swirl, declaring: “That’s okay, I like playing girl parts anyway.” The audience erupts into laughter. I wonder how many people are laughing because they know whereof he speaks. How many are kids who like “playing girl parts”? How many are parents with gay kids, or parents who remember being gay kids? And how many are just oddballs who know how good it feels to declare your oddball nature out loud?

Whoever is filling the seats at SoHo Playhouse—young and old, gay or straight—the exuberance of drag is reaching them. When LaFrage completes some ridiculous Beyoncé choreography that culminates in RuPaul’s familiar “You betta werk!” sound-bite, LaFrage calls out “Too much for you, kids?”  No, the kids call back. “Good,” he replies. “Live your life, kids!” Through drag and drag aesthetics, LaFrage has created a space that celebrates not just queens or queerness, but oddball behavior in general, encouraging kids to embrace difference before they learn to feel ashamed or afraid. “I’m not trying to give them a crash course in drag or gay culture,” LaFrage told me. “But yes, there are men putting on girl’s clothes, and girls putting on boy’s clothes, people putting on bird hats and pirate noses. I want to instill the idea that you can dress up and play make believe—and be yourself—and it’s gonna be OK.”

Of course, not everyone feels that drag and children’s theater make a good match. Some reviews have criticized Rapunzel for making references that fly above kids’ heads, or for allowing its storyline to become longer and more tangled than the title character’s hair. And it’s true: The Nicole Kidman or Thornton Wilder jokes probably don’t resonate with kindergarteners, and the play focuses as much on the backstory of Rapunzel’s parents as it does on the heroine herself. But this is the nature of drag aesthetics: Amidst all the slapstick and fart sound effects, some jokes are designed to reach only one or two audiences members; and narrative is always upstaged by spectacle. What matters is the message, embedded LaFrage’s story as it is in the DNA of drag itself—a message that is as meaningful on a gay bar’s stage as it is in a children’s theater: Even when it’s “too much” for everyone watching, be yourself.