I’ve only lived in Philadelphia for 5 years, so I’m way behind when it comes to understanding all this city’s traditions. I still don’t quite get the Mummers, I’ve never eaten a cheesesteak (!!) and I couldn’t fit the word “jawn” into my vocabulary if I tried. On Saturday night, though, I had an opportunity to be part of a Philly tradition I can totally jawn with. See, that was a huge mistake.
The men of Mask and Wig Club invited me and my partner, Alan, to their theater in the Gayborhood to see their 125th-anniversary show, Beautopia: A Face Odyssey. It was an odd night to be there, because a hoity-toity alum was hosting a dinner party for his black-tie-wearing, white-haired friends. There weren’t even proper seats for us in the performance space, which looked more like a dining hall than a theater, with round white-tablecloth-draped tables and waiters buzzing around pouring wine and coffee for the distinguished guests — many of which where UPenn alums and Mask and Wig members from back in the day. We sat in the back of the house in a couple of uncomfortable fold-up chairs. Not ideal, but having that full-room view really added to the experience. I got chills watching former members pump their fists and croon along to the same songs they sang when they were performing in wigs and dresses up on that stage years ago.
The show is a silly romp of a thing, but that’s not to say it isn’t creative and really entertaining. Written by Jonah Meyerson, it follows a mail courier named James (Chirag Pathre), who has just thawed after being frozen for centuries. When the ice melts away, he realizes the world has been divided into two parts: People who rank 5 to 10 (as in he’s a total 10) live in Beautopia, the rest are banished to dirty, smelly Pittsburgh (“It’s like someone took the word ‘moist’ and turned it into a city.”) Beautopia is ruled over by Ralph, a self-absorbed No. 10 who turns Under-5s into a beauty cream so he can be young and radiant for eternity (A quick check showed they don’t sell said cream at Sephora.) His girlfriend, Sophie, is played by Derrick High (the No. 9 pictured right.) Towering at least a foot about everyone else, she’s undoubtedly the best and most convincing drag role in the whole show. That girl can cock a hip, believe you me.
The rest of the storyline revolves around James trying to trick Ralph into drinking an ugly potion so Beautopia will crumble and the world will stop judging based on appearance. (Side note: It’s implied that the play was written by Meyerson after he was rejected by a pretty girl named Jessica.) I was surprised at how talented the cast was, especially after discovering many of them are working toward not-so-artsy degrees in accounting and math. They really shine in the bigger, choreographed numbers, which, unfortunately, only happen three or four times throughout the whole show. Pathre is an especially big talent. His voice is smooth and strong, and he moves like he took lessons from Beyoncé.
After the show, the evening officially wrapped up with a traditional floor show downstairs (see video below). That’s where I chatted with senior Ryan Dew, the group’s trumpet player and first openly gay undergraduate chairman. He filled me in on some tidbits about Mask and Wig (there are currently 6 to 7 gay members) and he guided me around the cozy, fire-lit Grille Room, whose walls are covered with beer steins and funny caricatures of former members. A few of those former members even stopped by to point out their likenesses. The pride in that room was undeniable, and really touching.
That’s why I recommend adding Mask and Wig to your yearly theater-going ventures — not for an evening of ground-breaking theater or to see an amazing drag show, but to be a part of a Philly tradition that’s lasted for more than a century. And if you can get in with an audience that actually gets the pop-culture references and isn’t afraid to hoop and holler along the way, I think it’d definitely be your jawn. It worked! See, I’m more of a Philadelphian already.