Pearle Harbour's Sunday School: dragging the hell out of liberal guilt and pomposity
by Drew Rowsome
I want you to look out into the Judgment Free Zone and pick the most beautiful person there
Auntie Ms Pearle is a magnetic, if perhaps a bit intimidating, Sunday school teacher. She is also internally vulnerable, undone like many of us are, by the burdens of political correctness and keeping up appearances. And whatever happened in last week's class, building on what happened the class before (and that's as far back as she cares to go), has the cracks showing and the huffing of magic marker fluid flowing.
Pearle Harbour's Sunday School takes the genres of religious satire featuring fallible authority figures (Sister Act, Nunsense, The Devils, etc) and amps it up with drag and drag sensibility stand-up (Bianca del Rio, Dame Edna Everage, Pam Ann [honorary], etc) in pursuit of theatrical glitter and gold, and some serious themes. While the results involve a few mis-steps, as Auntie Ms Pearle says,
Never trying, now that's a deadly sin
and Justin Miller and his team just about pull off a miracle: the laughs at the beginning are solid and the ending, one of the darkest most nihilistic and incredibly funny jokes, I have seen, is wonderfully horrific.
We begin by seating ourselves in either chairs or at scattered craft tables. Auntie Ms Pearle makes a dramatic entrance, twice, and launches into lectures, jokes, and a bit of song. It is comfortable territory and Miller gets lots of laughs. The political jibes are nicely edgy with a "Too soon?" quality that is refreshing. Drag queens have always been able to walk the edge of what is acceptable - the combination of outsider, clown and gay is a license to outrage humorously - and Miller pushes the envelope by satirizing the members of the audience - intellectual, liberal, politically correct, the majority white-privileged, etc - quite mercilessly. Some of the best jokes were lost in the mix simply because the audience felt it shouldn't laugh (or felt indicted) and there was an audible gasp at an Olivia Chow jibe.
Our worship of Justin Trudeau is gently mocked by encouraging us to think WWJTD (What would Justin Trudeau do?) and then turned on its head with a deliciously nasty Syrian refugee gag. Our national shining light who "keeps popping up everywhere shirtless like some metrosexual sasquatch with Moxy Fruvous hair" (a typically cleverly multi-layered line) is lionized, mocked and reflected back on the audience, just where does our patriotism and liberal smugness come from?
The class is apparently being live-streamed giving Miller the chance to sneak in some nicely-done special effects and commentary on how social media has allowed us to disengage from actual responsibility. There is much discussion of the need to respect trans rights yet we aren't off the hook by paying lip service: Auntie Ms Pearle guts the alphabet soup of letters that is the full LGBT acronym (another fine joke and with a rare sexual component) and can't seem to resist venting her distaste for asexuals or mocking those she views as potentially trans.
It is this cognitive dissonance that is the weakness and the strength of Pearle Harbour's Sunday School. A man in a dress makes jokes about trans rights and left-wing beliefs are compared comically to the biblical beliefs we already know are ridiculous. It is ambitious and audacious and Pearle Harbour's Sunday School almost pulls it off. As a showcase for Justin Miller's acting (and this is definitely an attempt to transcend or expand drag) Pearle Harbour's Sunday School is a tour de force. He is in total command of the stage (and the audience hears if Pearle thinks their attention has wandered) and navigates the bipolar character traits demanded by the plot easily. And he seems to terrify his beleaguered accompanist, an either truly terrified or Don Knottsian actor, Steven Conway. As a piece of theatre it needs either polishing with more tightly-knit plotting and motivation, or to be allowed to blow up into something truly outrageous and nasty (Miller excels in the audience participation/semi-improvised sections).
Or maybe that confusion should be allowed to sit and settle. The ground under our feet is quagmire and our beliefs are mortifyingly malleable and if Auntie Ms Pearle has trouble navigating in heels (shoes are another metaphor deftly interwoven throughout Pearle Harbour's Sunday School), it can't hurt us, in our sensible if stylish footwear, to examine our own precarious footing. And definitely there needs to be a screening of the video evidence of last week's Beyoncé debacle.
Pearle Harbour's Sunday School continues until Sun, Sept 18 at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, 79 St. George St. pearleharbour/brownpapertickets.com