Holy Tranity!

Richard Burnett

I’ve always thought Rock’n’Roll makes for great theatre and over the last 40 years Rocky Horror has paved the way for such rock musicals as John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

In fact, Montreal and Edmonton audiences witnessed drag legend-in-the-making Antonio Bavaro star as Hedwig in memorable productions of that musical at their 2011 Fringe Festivals, and then as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror at Montreal’s indie Mainline Theatre last autumn.

Now starring as transwoman Gracie in the much-buzzed-about musical Holy Tranity! at the upcoming 2013 Montreal Fringe festival, I tell Bavaro he’s hit some kind of queer trifecta.

“Gracie is a goddess to me, and I’m very honoured to be playing her in [playwright and Divers/Cité co-founder] Puelo Deir’s new play,” says Bavaro, quickly adding, “Although I had some reservations about accepting the role. I was like, ‘Why not cast a real trans person to play the role?’ But this is a very queer production, almost everybody working on the show is queer.”

Holy Tranity! is set in the neon glam 1980s and, as the production notes state, “follows 17-year-old naïve runaway Jude 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 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 features many X-rated buff-boy stripping numbers and Bavaro sings some diva standards, including Judy Garland’s Get Happy.

“This play is a few years in the making, after our [critically-acclaimed] reading at the [2011] Toronto Fringe Festival. 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,” says Bavaro who was born in the 1980s. “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.”

I can’t help but think that gay is passé, while trans civil rights are now in the vanguard.

It reminds me of U.S. black civil rights hero Bayard Rustin – the gay man who organized the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed “I have a dream!”

Rustin thought the black and gay civil rights movements were inseparable and before his death in 1987, he took part in the gay community’s first March on Washington.

“Twenty-five to 30 years ago the barometer of human rights in the United States was black people,” Rustin said at the time. “That’s no longer true.” The new barometer, Rustin added, is gay equality.

But in the 25 years since his death, I’d venture to say there is yet another “new’ barometer, and that is enshrining the civil rights of trans people.

Also, performing Holy Tranity! at Café Cléopatra is quite symbolic, since the building has been a showbar since 1893 and a landmark of Montreal’s trans community for almost 40 years.

“It was one of the first underground places I ever went to, and for [drag] extravaganzas it was the place,” Montreal pop and drag icon Mado Lamotte, whose Cabaret Mado in the Village is now this city’s undisputed drag emporium, told me back in 2009. “Cleo’s is a little quiet today, but it used to be the place to impress your straight friends!”

But with Antonio Bavaro in the house – starring in both Holy Tranity! during the Montreal Fringe Festival, and his drag alter-ego Connie Lingua hosting her Cabaret Cochonne the third Saturday of each month (Cabaret Cochonne will skip June because of the Fringe fest and will next be held on July 20) – Cleopatra’s is reclaiming some of its luster.

Bavaro can feel the ghosts of generations past around him in Cleopatra’s dressing rooms, and is using the whole experience to enrich his role as Gracie. “This play amalgamates the gay world, the drag world and the transwoman world,” Bavaro says. “Back in the day we didn’t go to each other’s bars, and the difficulties that Gracie goes through in this play – as she deals with being a den mother for all these drag queens, go-go boys and transwomen at her club – many of my own real-life friends have gone through. The 1980s was such a complicated era and Montreal was clearly a very different place back then.”

Meanwhile, Mado – bless her heart, the tramp – redubbed me “Richie Bitch” after I mistakenly spread the story that patrons at Poodles nightclub on The Main back in 1987 thought Mado was so ugly they called her “The Mutt.” Thus, I said, Mado ‘La Motte’ was born.

But the real story is even better: Mado was part of a drag trio at Poodles called the Vulva Queens and “we wanted to post flyers all over The Main. Then we thought feminists would freak out, so we decided to invent a French name because after all we were French!” Mado recalls. “We came up with the ‘Lamotte’ family name first. Then after watching a Weight Watchers video whose host Madeleine had the worst female voice I’ve ever heard, I discovered I could imitate her! So I became Mado.”

Some folks think Bavaro’s Rock’n’Roll drag alter-ego Connie Lingua is as gloriously funny, bitchy and entertaining as Mado. “I think the comparisons are happening because of our versatility,” Bavaro says. “But Mado is the true legend. She started 26 years ago now, I’ve only been around going onto 11 years. Mado was part of that cutting edge that fucked around with gender in the 1980s that we explore in Holy Tranity!, and I studied her.

“So I’m just honoured to be mentioned in the same breath as a hero of mine.”

Antonio Bavaro co-stars in Holy Tranity! at Café Cléopatra (1230 Boulevard Saint-Laurent St, 2nd Floor, Metro station St-Laurent). Five shows during the Montreal Fringe Festival: June 18-19-20-22-23. Surf to http://holytranity.com/.

Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at http://blogs.montrealgazette.com/category/montreal/pop-tart/.

Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.