The Empress & The Prime Minister
World Premiere – written and starring Darrin Hagen
Theatre Network, 8529 103 St.
April 16 to May 5, 2019
Tues. to Sat.  8 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m.
Dark on Mondays.

Tickets online: $15 to $30, theatrenetwork.ca

Review by GRAHAM HICKS,  Hicksbiz.com

One of the loftier goals of the performing arts,  as in every theatrical mission statement ever issued, is to present the world around us in a new light, to inform meaningful change, to challenge the audience to re-think attitudes, to push that audience off default positions.

A fine goal indeed. But one rarely achieved – especially when causes woodenly and nakedly masquerade as characters.

So hats off and a deep bow to Darrin Hagen who has written and stars in The Empress & The Prime Minister.

I found The Empress & The Prime Minister seismic.  I left the show with a deeper, visceral understanding of what being “different” actually means – when just being yourself is an indictable crime.

Hagen has poured most of his deep, multi-faceted creative career into stories – fictional, autobiographical, memoirs, comedies, dramas – relating to his experiences of being a gay man and a drag-queen performer; of being different, always on the outside; of looking for acceptance, in contemporary society, for what he was, is and always will be – an openly gay artist and drag queen.

The Empress & The Prime Minister is a top-notch creative idea.

As explained in the program notes, Hagen became re-acquainted in 2013 with the by-then elderly ted northe. northe was a leading gay-rights activist in Canada during the 1950s and 60s, when being a homosexual was an indictable offense and Canadians went to jail for the “crime” of being gay.

northe had been a non-stop letter writer, trying to change federal legislation to de-criminalize homosexuality. Nothing happened … until Pierre Elliott Trudeau, as federal minister of justice took up northe’s cause, and then, as prime minister, ushered in 1969’s Bill C-150 that decriminalized homosexuality. Trudeau’s famous phrase at the time still resonates  - “There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”

In this 90-minute production,  Hagen “channels” ted northe, becomes ted northe, tells northe’s life story in the first person – including a lengthy, formal friendship with Trudeau, the first politician to actively and publicly  support northe’s cause. The Empress in the title is northe, who was known in drag queen circles as the Empress of All Canada.

The Empress & The Prime Minister moves the prolific Hagen into a new, deeper level as a writer and performer.

All his past story-telling skills come into play in a balanced, skillful way.

His research is impeccable – a thorough telling of that time in recent history, just 50 years ago, when individuals were locked away for the “crime” of being gay, when electro-shock therapy was used to “convert” the “mental disorder” of homosexuality into acceptable heterosexuality.

The humour, a constant in Hagen’s work, is always present. But this time it’s carefully used to lend exclamation marks to the script, to make a point, not just to be funny.  

The writing is a fine balance between the history and politics of gay liberation and the personal emotional turmoil that northe went through.

What could too easily have become a stilted monologue is made natural and meaningful by the interaction of northe/Hagen with the play’s other characters – all played to a T by a the very fine actor Joey Lesperance.

New to the Edmonton stage, Lesperance, with his slight French accent, is perfectly believable as Pierre Trudeau.  And, as a Catholic priest in the ‘50s, he perfectly captures a reality of that time – of closet homosexuals in secret societies who would never, ever, allow the truth to out.

Lesperance’s star turn is when he does one-minute cameos, one after another, of the speeches made by Canadian political party leaders -  Robert Stanfield, Tommy Douglas, Real Caouette and, of course, Trudeau, during the parliamentary debate on Bill C-150.

His impersonations are fabulous, the actual remarks so representative of attitudes to homosexuality at the time.

With this show, Hagen has matured into a beautifully balanced playwright/performer.  He has accomplished one of theatre’s most difficult tasks -  to have his audience walk away with a much greater understanding – intellectually, emotionally, intuitively – of his theme, having told his tale in an easily digestible, entertaining way, using all the dramatic tools at his disposal.

The Empress & The Prime Minister, at Edmonton's Theatre Network through May 5, 2019,  is not to be missed.