My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

Fresh divas for Pride
and fresh drama for post-Pride:
Viva Cabaret and Komunka

Yury Ruzhyev wears a multitude of different hats - as well as wigs, gowns, heels and clown noses - during the course of a single performance of Viva Cabaret. This month and next he adds yet another with the play he instigated, Komunka, being a part of the Fringe Festival. Despite being insanely busy, and having given us a detailed and intimate interview only six months ago, Ruzhyev took the time to answer some serious, and some salacious questions.

Drew Rowsome: What advantages does being a "WorldPride  Affiliate Event" get Viva Cabaret?

Yury Ruzhyev: The only reason I became an affiliate event, was in the hopes that a tall handsome European guy will see me on a poster and fall in love with me. Jokes aside, I really can’t tell yet. Hopefully the enormous amount of paper work, high fees, and other hassles will bring people to the show.

What are your feelings about WorldPride as an event? Does your Russian background make the event feel more inclusive or more out of touch with realities elsewhere?

It’s so great that Toronto has a chance to host WorldPride in our beautiful city and showcase the great talents we have here. Unfortunately, very few people in Russia, Europe or even the USA know that Toronto is hosting WorldPride this June. Neither are there enough opportunities for talented singers, dancers and other performers to present their work during Pride week and that’s sad.  But I am very happy to be a cool Russian and live and work in a cool city and share the great Russian cultural heritage with Canadians.

Are you adding any new divas to Viva Cabaret specifically for WorldPride?

Yes. First of all, we are rediscovering every act in the show, exploring new depths of the characters with the help of my director Sonia Norris. And we are going to debut the Beyoncé act, just for WorldPride. This show will feature less Divas - 20 instead of 35 - but we take our time and pleasure in telling their stories. Liza, Judy, Monroe, Freddie, Madonna, Gaga and Whitney will all have new songs and new routines. 

What is director Sonia Norris' background and what is she bringing to Viva Cabaret? Is her clowning expertise influencing the tone of the show?

Sonia is having a huge impact on the show, as a clown, a cabaret artist as well as a theatre director. She has trained extensively in physical theatre and has a very strong and varied theatrical background. Her artistic aesthetic amalgamates theatre, circus and clown. She takes my characters on a journey from very intimate traditional theatre to an extremely grotesque physical clown theatre. She pushes really hard, digging into the characters and demanding that I find greater depths and more interesting choices, yet, she is so easy to work with. She lets me play with all ideas I have and then carefully chooses and develops the ones that will work the best. We haven't had a single artistic disagreement so far and that’s amazing. Knock on wood.

I love the parallel between clowning and how you lovingly lampoon your divas as well as impersonating them. The version of Viva Cabaret I saw began with a clown character that I recognized but can't place. Is the clowning a salute to a specific school of clowning or clown? Do you see Viva Cabaret as more female impersonation or more clowning (or how does the balance work)?

The clown character you refer to is really more of a cabaret MC character and he is a new addition to the show that we are developing. There is so much more work to be done creating and developing this character, who is actually a bouffon we think. This is exciting work and I hope we will see more of this character. Right now his job in the show is to bring the audience into his world of illusions, magic and dreams. The world of the divas is his dream and he invites the audience to enter his dream world where he can be anyone he dreams of, and offers them the opportunity to fantasize about who they dream of being. In the last show he only appeared very briefly at the beginning, intermission and the end of the show. This time he has separate acts of his own. I am loving playing with him and hope the audience will too. 

Viva Cabaret's audience has included entire families, even children, and naive straights. Do you adjust the show, the risqué elements and the sexuality to factor that in? 

Most of the time I do perform for straights. Women, kids and confident straight men adore the show. Some clients ask me to tone down my performance because they have a very conservative audience. But on the day, when Tina Turner sits on their lap, you should see the conservatives’ eyes, shining with forbidden and evil delight. Some even asked me not to take my shirt of at the end of the show and I am like, “Ok, you have the option: my pants will go down.” They always go for the less evil.  Kids adore the show. Their confusion and fascination with boy or girl things delights and puzzles them greatly. Not sure what affect it has on their pure innocent minds, but I hope they will grow up less judgmental and homophobia free. 

Flirting with the audience is a big part of Viva Cabaret and while most were delighted there were some men who seemed a bit unnerved. How do you navigate those with discomfort with gender variance? How do you handle propositions from the audience? Propositions from men who may not have considered crossing the same sex line before?

It’s been challenging sometimes to perform in heels, make up and extravagant costumes when there are not so friendly faces in the audience. Sonia has taught me the art of  sharing my joy with everyone and engaging them in the magical, unreal world of Viva Cabaret. Confident straight men with no personal sexual issues, are great fun to perform for and they are ready for a lap dance, a kiss, flirting and other fun activities. It’s the other men who are in trouble with themselves and therefore give trouble to the world. My job is to cure them and take them from their dark inner world, to the fabulous world of love, pride, liberty and open hearts.

Your play Komunka is part of the Fringe Festival and begins barely a week after Viva Cabaret. Is it difficult to be rehearsing two very different projects at the same time? Does the work on one help with the other?

It’s more difficult to promote and advertise both shows, the rehearsing is fun fun fun. There are so many great things happening this summer, and I wish I could see all my friends’ shows, but I am stuck with my divas. Being with two great directors like Sky Gilbert and Sonia Norris is amazing and I can’t get enough of it. I am a chameleon and playing Liza and then switching to play my straight and homophobic character in Komunka is pure joy for an actor like me.

Komunka, although highly comic, has very serious political undertones. Do those bleed into Viva Cabaret?

Komunka is serious, current, rough theatre, at least I hope so, while Viva Cabaret is pure entertainment with a touch of sarcasm. I hope that after seeing the play, you will go home and think about it, the issues other people have in the world. After seeing divas at their best, your heart will be filled with love and joy and your face will be sore from smiling. 

Before the last Viva Cabaret and while Komunka was still being workshopped, the song that Yury would sing as Yury was Nina Simone's "Feeling Good." What are you singing now?

I am in a different state of mind than in the winter, and the song for this summer would be, “I have a dream, a wonderful dream papa. And all that I need is 88 bucks, that’s it papa, only 88 bucks. Give me a chance I know I can work it.” “Some People” from Gypsy.

The numbers that got the biggest response in Viva Cabaret were the disco and the big emotion numbers. Are today's would-be-divas, and by extension those who impersonate them, at a disadvantage because of the musical and emotional flatness of current pop music ?

It’s the combination of both the music being flat and the plain personalities of the performers. Most popular modern artists look, dance, and perform in same way. From the last seat in the theatre you can’t tell them apart. Where are the over-the-top personalities? I don’t listen to pop music any more, it’s just all the same one long boring song. Where is ABBA, Michael Jackson or Grace Jones? If you miss larger than life personalities, good disco, rock and jazz music, extravagant costumes and high energy performances - come to the Rivoli and let me welcome you to the world of the greatest divas in Viva Cabaret

Viva Cabaret is on Wed, June 25 and Thurs, June 26 at The Rivoli, 334 Queen St W.

Komunka runs Thurs, July 3 to Sun, July 13 at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, 79 St George St.,