Ballad of the Burning Star: song and dance and emotional devastation
by Drew Rowsome -
How to explain the horrors and ever-escalating violence of Israeli/Palestinian politics? Drag queen Star slaps on several layers of warpaint and straps on a pair of heels, before singing and dancing her way across that treacherous shifting quagmire. Ballad of the Burning Star is drag cabaret at its most intense, Star is not spilling her guts on stage, she and her high-octane Starlets are eviscerating the entire human condition.
After some cute gags about potential bomb threats, Star makes a grand entrance before luring, with a combination of charm and bullying, the audience into her confidence. As writer/director/star Nir Paldi expressed in an earlier interview, the use of a drag queen as host and central figure is instantly disarming. Star exudes that fraudulent intimacy that surrounds drag queens like a thick cloud of perfume, she can lead anywhere she damn well pleases and the audience will follow.
Where Star takes the audience may be routed through song and dance, but it goes to some very dark and brutal places. Star's wig may be a variation on Liza's in Cabaret, but it is bolted down because this is more Brecht than Fosse - and more energetic than both combined. The Starlets have been drilled in the precise choreography but Star takes time to upbraid them viciously for every minor mistake or threat of upstaging. The abuse is a comic break from the main storyline but also ties the theme of intolerance into a twisted knot.
The Starlets - Stefanie Sourial, Amy Nostbakken, Tomoko Komura, Orian Mitchaeli and Deborah Pugh - are all triple threats and emote at a pitch that must test their endurance nightly. Star shouts, "This is not a soap opera, this is a serious political piece," before ratcheting the melodrama and angst up another notch. The musical score, though layered vocal work adds some rich sonics, is provided entirely by Pete Aves as the band, Camp David. He also comes in for a lot of mainly undeserved invective courtesy of Star.
And the leading lady? She is a true diva but the cracks in her facade, that become schisms by the end, are achingly revealed. It is a fearless, high-wire performance that Paldi seems to revel in risking. He even manages to milk the worst drag cliché, one that has ruined many a production, and make it moving.
The biggest laugh of the night comes during the singing of a Jewish persecution list. There is a holocaust joke as well as some highly offensive racial slurs. It is not all in good fun, Paldi is confused and angry about his pride, and his guilt. as an Israeli and, though no conclusion is reached (is one even reachable?), to dive into Star's and Isreal's and Palestine's pain is cathartic and unsettling in equal measures. Ballad of the Burning Star is not a light entertainment, not a pantomime or drag event, but it is deeply disturbing and hence unforgettable.