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Holiday play a tale of fabulous friendship and understanding

Articles and Reviews — Maeike van Dijk @ December 6th, 2010

Dec 4th, 2010 | by Kevin Rushworth

Paul Welch as She. Photo by Benjamin Laird. With Bells On-a world premiere comedy-is written by playwright and drag artist, Darrin Hagen. It is a holiday tale complete with sequins, high heels, bells and wigs

Paul Welch as She. Photo by Benjamin Laird. With Bells On-a world premiere comedy-is written by playwright and drag artist, Darrin Hagen. It is a holiday tale complete with sequins, high heels, bells and wig.

It is no secret that riding an elevator can sometimes be a tad discomforting. People stand on opposite ends of that vertically moving rectangular box, squeezing themselves into the corners. Since the invention of such a unit of transport, elevators and humanity’s personal space have been mortal enemies.

But as Lunchbox Theatre’s most recent comedic production With Bells On showed audiences, a simple elevator ride with rather “fabulous company” can be testament to the fact that anyone can come out of their shells. For straight-laced, conservative Ted-portrayed with awkward hilarity and naivety by Lunchbox Theatre newcomer Stafford Perry-his first night out since his divorce was much different than expected.

As the holidays loom closer, certain images come to mind when you think about the traditional Christmas tree: ornaments, angels, holly and strings of lights. Now, replace those conventional images with glittering red lipstick, a bleach-blonde wig, sparkling high heels, a dark green dress-adorned with bells, tassels and holiday cheer-and a light-up tiara. It’s not every day that a drag queen dressed as everybody’s favourite holiday flora enters an elevator.

The stage, albeit nothing but a simple open-air black box, brought the audience into the elevator and into the world of Ted and Natasha-portrayed with brilliant poise and flamboyance by stage veteran Paul Welch. With Bells On-a world premiere comedy-is written by playwright and drag artist, Darrin Hagen. It is a holiday tale complete with sequins, high heels, bells and wigs.

Just as Natasha ever-so-politely states, “dressing like this takes balls,” it sometimes takes just as much gumption to break free of the traditional or the ordinary- a key theme in the hilarious production. However, what a drag it would be if the queen herself rode the elevator to the main floor of the apartment and then just left. It is only when the elevator breaks down, that both Ted and Natasha are forced to get to know each other and their worlds.

In a twist of the Cinderella story, Natasha must get to a drag show at the Magical Crystal Palace by midnight or else his rival will steal the Christmas Queen tiara from him. He has been practicing his showgirl routine to Anita Ward’s “Ring my Bell” for months. On the other hand, Ted is at a crossroads in his life, in which he has to make a choice to step out of what he knows.

Already divorced, he is living in an apartment with only one small window. Just as Ted is afraid to break free, Natasha is afraid to show the world who he is on stage. In a sense, both of them need this night to just let go. However, what they need first is to get out of the elevator. With Bells On, directed by Ian Prinsloo, is a holiday story with a twist. With one part drag queen and one part ordinary man, it is a tale of understanding and friendship. With Bells On runs until Dec. 18 at Lunchbox Theatre.

Dreaming of a Drag Christmas

Articles and Reviews — Maeike van Dijk @ December 6th, 2010

With Bells On Premieres in Calgary

Theatre Review by Pam Rocker
From December 2010 (Page 14)

Paul Welch as She, Image by Steve Polyak

Paul Welch as She, Image by Steve Polyak

A sharp-tongued drag queen dressed as a Christmas tree gets stuck in an elevator with a freshly divorced conservative accountant who is just trying to peak out of his shell. This is definitely not your grandmother’s Christmas play, but it should be. Darrin Hagen’s newest comedy, With Bells On, is making its world premiere in Calgary at Lunchbox Theatre, and those who see it will never be able to think of a Christmas Queen in quite the same way.

The latest play from this Edmonton-based playwright and drag queen is a creation where depth and nuance takes place, where most Christmas shows would add some tinsel, fake snow, and another chorus of O Holy Night. This is no easy feat, but Hagen is no beginner.

Having written or co-written over twenty-five plays, this Drag Artiste is the brains and beauty/brawn behind such hits as Tornado Magnet: A Salute to Trailer Court Women, The Neo-Nancies: Hitler’s Kickline, and BitchSlap! His first play, The Edmonton Queen, was subsequently expanded into book form and published.

Paul Welch as She and Stafford Perry as He. Image by Steve Polyak.

Paul Welch as She and Stafford Perry as He. Image by Steve Polyak.

Performing in every show that he has written, Hagen transforms into characters that are nothing less than four dimensional. From our insiders look at the inimitable Dotty Parsons in her battle to fight “mobile home-ophobia” (Tornado Magnet), to the hilarious and heartbreaking journey that the dazzling and quick-witted Gloria Hole takes us through inThe Edmonton Queen, we are assured that each story will leave us crying, one way or another.

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Lunchbox Theatre Review: With Bells On

Articles and Reviews — Maeike van Dijk @ December 3rd, 2010

Lunchbox Theatre presents With Bells On by Darrin Hagen through Dec. 18. Tickets: Call 403-265-4292.

***1/2 out of five

Bob Clark

Calgary Herald

If you think a scenario featuring  a drag queen dressed like a Christmas tree who is stuck in an elevator with a nervous, uptight but eager-to-please accountant on his way ”out” for a little excitement sounds promising, you should see the fun Lunchbox Theatre has with it.

The show in question, With Bells On, is the newest play by Edmonton playwright Darrin Hagen, who has built a fairly successful career out of writing plays centred on men who love to look and act like women  – and are as outrageous as they are convincing in carrying it off.

Representing Lunchbox’s 300th production, With Bells On makes a strong bid for the Yuletide entertainment dollar despite a pace that sometimes drags  – which is not so much the fault of director Ian Prinsloo, who has to contend with the tentativeness and awkwardness of first encounters contained in Hagen’s script (admittedly a challenge in a noon-hour one-act format). Things have picked up significantly, however, by the time we reach the hilarious ”belle of the ball” disco sequence (chreographed by Hagen himself) that clearly delighted the sizable lunchtime theatre crowd on Thursday.

The play opens with Ted (portrayed with stoically grinning good spirits by Stafford Perry) holding the door of the elevator for the towering ”Natasha” (Paul Welch, demonstrating admirable restraint and assured comic nuance in a role that could easily have gone over the top and slid down the other side), a spangled transvestite with specific show biz ambitions that are summed up by a billowing floor-length skirt in Christmas-green-and-red, and an elaborate white top - the entire getup crowned by a Marie Antoinette-Goldilocks wig, complete with an accessory that lights up.

On their slow ride down together from the 14th floor, our nebbishy Ted exudes nothing but awe for his self-absorbed fellow occupant. “She,” on the other hand, reveals little but open disdain for the poor guy, who tries to curry favour with her from every angle.

(When the admiring Ted innocently observes, for example, ”I find your perfume intoxicating,” his companion retorts, “Then don’t drink it.”

And when he pays her what he thinks is a compliment on the way she looks, Natasha snaps back, in one of the show’s clever double entendres, “Dressing like this takes balls.”)

But then the elevator stalls, and the balance between the mostly monochrome but adoring Ted the Foil and the very colorful ”woman” trapped with him begins to change.

It is to the considerable credit of Welch and, to a lesser extent, Perry – Perry may have his scene-stealing moments late in the play, but it is Welch’s performance that sustains our interest overall - that we end up caring enough about their two characters to come away from the show with something a little more than laughter (which, happily, is not in short supply, especially in the last 20 minutes or so of the duo’s journey together).

The show looks good, too. The design of the Lunchbox production (the work of Anton deGroot, who also did the imaginative lighting) is as effective as it is simple: the classy glass-and-chrome look of a highrise elevator that nicely frames the input of costume (and makeup?) designer Norman MacDonald, who gives With Bells its essential finishing touch of, well – spectacle.

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He and She charm over lunch

Articles and Reviews — Maeike van Dijk @ December 3rd, 2010

With Bells On is a delightful holiday treat

Photo by Benjamin Laird

Photo by Benjamin Laird


With Bells On presented by Lunchbox Theatre
Lunchbox Theatre
Monday, November 22 – Saturday, December 18

More in: Theatre

Lunchbox Theatre’s holiday offering this year is a cute little show — albeit somewhat offbeat — called With Bells On. It’s not a Christmas production in the most obvious sense, but if one of the criteria for a show at this time of year is “heartwarming,” then With Bells Ondefinitely fits the bill.

The world première comedy, written by Edmonton-based playwright and drag performer Darrin Hagen, tells the story of a recently divorced accountant, listed simply as “He” in the program (Stafford Perry), who meets a statuesque and stunning drag queen, “She” (Paul Welch), while sharing a ride in their apartment building’s elevator. (While Hagen often performs in his own plays, he doesn’t this time around.)

The sight of a short Perry dressed in a conservative suit, standing next to a very, very tall Welch, bedecked like a Christmas tree complete with a big blond wig, a headdress resembling the Statue of Liberty, and a floor-length skirt covered with bells and baubles is, on its own, worth the price of the ticket. Clearly, He is mesmerized by the sight She presents, and the audience finds out He has also been watching She through his window, much to She’s annoyance.

As awkward silence evolves into awkward conversation, the elevator breaks down. Despite She’s best attempts to push the emergency button in a haughty my-time-is-far-too-important-for-this-delay fashion, and her yells for help, no one comes. As such, She and He have to spend time alone in the close confines of the elevator, made even smaller by the voluminous nature of She’s skirt. He proceeds to ask She some innocent, perhaps naive, questions, and She sharpens her wit at his expense. However, before long, She softens up, and the two end up sharing confidences. The audience finds out that, despite their very different exteriors, they share similar feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.

When the elevator gets stuck, She is actually on her way to a drag queen pageant to vie for the title of “Christmas Queen.” As She tries to practise her dance routine in the elevator to pass the time, She finds out He has some unexpected talents. The two hatch a plan to get out of the elevator and save her chances of winning the pageant crown, while giving him the opportunity to break free of his inhibited shell and live a little.

The scene with She lip-synching and dancing for her title — with He’s help — is full of fun and offers a great contrast to the rest of the show.

The show is slow getting started, but once it gets going, it’s a fun ride. Yes, it plays on all sorts of clichés, particularly that the conservative-looking little man is repressed and naive, and that the drag queen is worldly and sophisticated. But, in this case, using stereotypes is part of the fun. Yes, Hagen includes some self-conscious, self-gratifying references to drag queens, such as when She tells He that “we’re (drag queens) all over,” which, in a different production, could be annoying. But, in this show, it added to the humour. The characters are likable, and Welch, in particular, is to be congratulated for his fabulous portrayal of She, complete with her glittery lip gloss and cheek-grazing pink eyelashes. Welch could have another career ahead of him if he’s interested.

With Bells On is not a roll-in-the-aisles funny show, but, rather, offers audiences some gentle humour that includes holiday-appropriate messages on the value of friendship and taking the time to get to know your neighbours. You root for He and She.

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