Wednesday, not two weeks after an annual Drag Convention cracked a sequin-sized hole in the Javits Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music brought a queen of its very own to Fort Greene. “I ended my bulimic crisis,” an impish Olivier Py informed those who’d come to experience the first of his four-night recital in BAM’s Fishman Space. “I don’t mix pills and liquor anymore.”
Py, a regular stage director of operas at European houses and current impresario at the Festival d’Avignon in France, may not be on the verge anymore. But with a life as inundated as his, he may be back to the bottle soon enough.
The program bio for his latest show at BAM, the wryly titled Les Premiers Adieux de Miss Knife, spans an effusive two pages and 10 paragraphs, and regales us with many of his métier highlights: head of the Théâtre National de l’Odéon in 2007! Actor in hundreds of shows and a bunch of movies with two films for Canal + under his directorial belt! Auteur, playwright, political activist!
And, at least since the 1996 Avignon Festival, the self-styled vedette from Grasse has also been donning feathers and mascara for international cabaret shows starring his feminine alter-ego, Miss Knife. Les Premier Adieux supposedly marks his farewell tour, and features over a dozen hits from his songbook—for Miss Knife, it turns out, is an accomplished (if not always totally inspired) French lyricist as well.
En tout, this black-box recital was an aggressively Gallic affair, with French music, high-wit French words, a couple well-trodden Edith Piaf chansons, and a four-piece ensemble of petulant musicians all dressed in black. But Py’s postwar stylings also raised some questions—at least for me they did—about cultural differences between American and French conceptions of drag and what constitutes fabulosity. And for this Yankee, while the show might have worked as a kind of retrospective, it was pretty far off from fabulous.
The evening took us through a medley of collaborations with composer Stéphane Leach, who was at the piano in support of Miss Knife. Over two hours, the two dispensed exactly the type of high-minded lyrical shrewdness she’s known for: the oddball scherzo of “Ne parlez pas d’amour,” the forbidden tango of “Le rôle est trop court,” bookish references to Orpheus’ lyre, the political insinuations of “Les amours sans promesses.” You get the idea.
Ironically, my favorite ditties were actually by a different Miss Knife collaborator, French composer Jean-Yves Rivaud, whose cynical waltz about youth in a bistro, “Les cafés du Vème”; “Dans les jardins de pampelune”; and “Le tango du suicide”—“La solution la plus rapide,” indeed!—felt somehow more textured and inventive than the rest.
Behind Knife, Julien Jolly, Olivier Bernard, and Sébastien Maire gamely provided drums, sax/flute, and double bass, respectively. Orchestrations by Leach were suitably jazzy but nothing fancy, though the musicians were at their best when improvising.
But what exactly does Miss Knife look like? I dunno, I guess you could say that she appears exactly as you would imagine a drag queen in her dotage, sort of a cross pollination of aging gender-benders?
“She is a dream creature in every sense of the word,” writes Py of his female incarnation in the program notes, la-di-da. “I love her because she represents all the lives behind all the faces of the women I have met, admired, or imagined.”
Py’s dreams must look different from mine. For her first costume of the night—a glittery (but ill-fitting beyond belief) gown, crystal neck piece, and tiara number—she channeled the love child of Barry Humphries and Gene Hackman. Then, casting off her blond wig for her second, she donned a somewhat more flattering (?) bejeweled clown jumpsuit, and managed to look a little like Happy Klaus Nomi showing up for Leigh Bowery’s birthday party.
Which is all to say that I liked a few of the lyrics but didn’t love “le look.” And this was precisely the problem: perhaps it’s just my Americanness showing, but I must say I prefer my drag queens completely irreverent, cynical, and rude, not intellectual or self-congratulatory about their art.
Or maybe the latter’s a French thing? Certainly the attendees I was seated among looked different from those cultivated by RuPaul. Twee, blue-haired, and surprisingly Francophone, the audience clapped politely and laughed daintily at many of the double-entendres. I, meanwhile, felt the way I so often do at French restaurants: like the guy who’s been asked to applaud a stick of butter on a plate hand-delivered with great pomp by a totally uninterested waiter.
Even if the point was to provide an intimate cabaret setting for an edgy piece of performance art, I also felt frequently let down by the mannered (and slightly pitchy) vocals and physical hamminess of the art itself, which over time betrayed a certain samey quality that undermined the lyrical flourishes of the songs.
As if to further confirm my reservations, each night incorporates a guest turn from a different cabaret legend—Angelique Kidjo, Ute Lemper, Jo Lampert, etc. Alighting on Py’s set on opening night, the always intriguing jazz chanteuse (and Susanne Bartsch consort) Joey Arias was on hand to spice up the evening’s second half, and here, the dose of American drag lit up the stage.
Arias, donning her trademark witchy look in a black fringe dress, sang the 1931 Marks and Simons standard “All of Me” with Py in one of the evening’s best and truly weirdest moments, with Arias demurely scat singing next to Lady Knife and looking at once stoned-silly and like he’d been abducted.
“I’m art!” Arias declared mockingly by way of introduction, and she marched across the stage to chat directly with the audience about the pretentiousness of BAM and how weird it was to be surrounded by French people. What followed was an unforgettable rendition of “Summertime” in which Arias approached each musician individually to make them improvise. (“What do you want me to do?” asked a nervous Sébastien Maire from behind his double bass. “Take your clothes off,” came the immediate response.) The audience was enthralled.
The night went long, and no encores were requested. But tepid response notwithstanding, it was nice to see a different side of drag, one that doesn’t get much play on the American airwaves.
“I thought all reviews would say, ‘My god, she’s leaving the stage,” joked Knife midway through the show. “But instead, they say ‘enfin.’” Not this reviewer. Although after two hours in my seat and yet another rendition of “La vie en rose,” I’d had just about assez.
Photo: Rebecca Greenfield