Ballad of the Burning Star: drag queen Star tackles an enduring conflict
Ballad of the Burning Star is a controversial piece of musical theatre wherein a drag queen, Star, tackles the history and politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through song, dance and comedy. The is completing a successful but contentious tour of the UK and reaching the star of the show proves difficult. When I finally get Nir Paldi on the line, I first have to ask, having made grievous mistakes with Dame Edna, Pam Ann, Dixie Longate, Miss Conception, and two incarnations of the Avenue Q puppets, "Am I speaking to Nir or Star?"
Paldi pauses and asks who I would prefer to talk to before affirming that, "You're talking to Nir. I'm only Star when I'm playing her in Ballad of the Burning Star. She's much more fun than me, I'm very serious. Actually she's quite serious as well but you can laugh at her."
One of the great things about drag, is that a queen can say whatever she wants, no matter how offensive and outrageous, and get away with it as comedy. "I just finished an interview," says Paldi, "Where he kept asking 'Why drag?' and I was trying to explain in an over-intellectualized manner perhaps . . . But you're right, she can say whatever she wants because she is speaking through this filter of 'it's just for laughs.' There's a lot of theatrical clown in there, Star is over-the-top."
Paldi has only done drag, "A couple of times, I emceed a few events, but I knew I could do it easily. Star is a big personality, a very specific drag queen. She is extremely controlling. She believes she is better than everyone else, not only the building but the whole city. There's a little part of me in there... "
For the purposes of Ballad of the Burning Star, drag is just a means to an end. "You can watch with playwright's glasses on," says Paldi, "but the use of gender and crossdressing - it's only me and five other girls, they are dressed like soldiers in kind of a militant way - it's all in the background, we really don't refer to it much except at the very end. As a gay person, I always thought part of the strength of gay rights is that I don't need to make any reference as to whether or not I'm gay or not. The show is about the situation between Israel and Palestine, and the fact that I'm a man dressed as a woman is just a reality. I was happy to discover as we toured, that even in small towns in the UK, audiences just weren't particularly interested in that side of things. They just accepted drag as a form of performance."
And the drag helps keep the heaviness healthily entertaining. "It gets very emotional and intense although its very funny very often. It braves the line," says Paldi. "We touch on a theme that is too much and Star will shout, 'I've had enough. Stop it,' and we move on to the next thing. She'll introduce new music and once again it's fun and games. but the scenes get warped and it gets darker and darker as the show progresses."
Sometimes it almost gets out of hand. "One night I could see a guy just getting more and more angry, just waiting to explode. But that's where Star is amazing. She can say, 'Be quiet. There are other people here who have paid money to be here.' To me it's very exciting to see the audience so engaged. And the show ends so dramatically, on such a note that I can run out and the audience just has to sit down."
In a northern UK city with a population that is very pro-Palestine, Ballad of the Burning Star received bomb threats and had to be performed with heavy security in place; in London the Jewish Embassy tried to have the show closed, saying it was a disgrace. Paldi is used to, but still amazed by, these diametric but similar reactions. "What the show is trying to do is show that the situation is extremely, extremely complex. Dialogue about the situation, outside and inside Israel, is so polarized. Either your pro-Palestine or vice versa, there's no in-between, there's no nuance. We're trying to explode this. The bottom line is that its a story about an Israeli boy who has a very complicated journey. He finds himself torn between being an oppressor or being a victim. The show exposes him as both. We have no answers. "
Dedication to his art, and working in heels, pays off in another way, "We all work at an extreme level of physical and vocal engagement. It's very demanding, it's like running a marathon. I start out a little chubby and I reduce myself as I go."
Paldi is curious about the battle between QuAIA and Pride, the federal government's plan to make boycotting Israel a hate crime, and finds the concept of pinkwashing fascinating. "It's very tricky," he says. "That's something that comes from the gay community and the left wing of the community where you feel like you are being used to masquerade that Israeli society is very open-minded because we don't discriminate against gay people. And meanwhile there are actually ghettos of Palestinians just metres away who, whether they are gay or not, they are completely discriminated against and living in horrible conditions compared to us."
When the show is over Paldi is happy to go to Star's dressing room and "put on men's clothes and sunglasses." He has only be recognized on the street once and found it uncomfortable. "Star lets me feel free to say what I need to say. She liberates me. She has the power to make the audience feel welcome and uncomfortable at the same time."
Ballad of the Burning Starruns Tues, May 19 to Sun, May 24 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St W. burningstar.ca
The Toronto performances are a co-production between Theatre Ad Infinitum (theatreadinfinitum.co.uk), Acting Up Stage (actingupstage.com), Why Not Theatre (theatrewhynot.org) and The Koffler Centre for the Arts (kofflerarts.org).