AURORA | The wheels on the bus have been going ‘round and ‘round, in and out, and — eventually — onstage at the Aurora Fox Arts Center this spring.
For the past several weeks, the design team at The Fox, led by Technical Director Brandon Case, has chopped, welded and moved select pieces of a retired public school bus onto the Colfax theater’s mainstage for what will arguably be The Fox’s grandest show of its 32nd season.
Obtained via Craig’s List from an undisclosed Colorado school district, the still drivable school bus will be one of the starring characters in The Fox adaptation of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” a musical take on the 1994 Australian cult film of nearly the same name. The story centers on two drag queens and a transgender woman who make their way across the Australian outback in a lavender bus named “Priscilla.”
The production at the Fox, the last of the theater’s current season, is loaded with firsts: The local directorial debut of Colorado arts icon Eden Lane, a novel casting choice for one of the leading characters and several musical tweaks made at the behest of the director with the consent of the original playwrights.
“The Aurora Fox production will be completely unique,” said Lane, who’s directing and choreographing the show.
Both Lane, who has hosted “In Focus With Eden Lane” on Colorado Public Television for the past 10 years, and Fox Executive Producer Charlie Packard pointed to the casting choice made for the character of Bernadette, the show’s transgender co-star, as a prominent highlight in the local production. After prompting from Lane, the Fox handed the role to Heather Lacy, who is believed to be the first cisgendered (a term used to describe people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) woman to ever portray the character onstage. Lane said the female role has typically been awarded to men.
“Much like Jeffrey Tambor mentioned in his Emmy’s acceptance speech, the time for having men play transgender women has really passed,” said Lane, who is transgender herself. “We were committed … to casting a woman whether she was transgender or cisgender to play this woman, Bernadette. In the same way we don’t want to see Caucasian actors playing characters of color … we want to cast as authentically as we can.”
Packard said Lane’s requirements for directing the production, such as casting a woman — transgender or cisgender — as Bernadette, have helped buoy the show.
“The first key to it was hiring Eden to direct and choreograph because she more than anybody knows the culture, and particularly the story of Bernadette,” he said. “Eden has a very keen sensitivity to that character and her journey.”
Lacy, who’s playing Bernadette in the show, said the role has been an exciting, historic challenge, as well as a departure from the explicitly sensual, dramatic female roles she is often offered.
“It’s been really interesting both character-wise and choosing what vocal line I will sing and what that says about the character,” Lacy said. “A man’s vocal line sits completely different from where mine is, so it’s been really fun to play with those.”
Packard said the show is coming out at an apt geopolitical moment.
“This show is about a culture, LGBTQ+, that has come such a long way in social acceptance and in legal terms … since the film was released, I believe in 1994,” he said. “This play is a real celebration — this is a tremendous success story. And then, throughout the last year, some of the gains that seemed to have been pretty solid in American culture have been questioned again, so it actually — in the time since we chose to do it — has become a bit more weighty and timely than I expected it to be.”
Lane said she believes regular Fox patrons will appreciate the show, despite their reputation.
“In my experience sitting with Aurora audiences, they’re as sophisticated and as ready for challenging material as any other audience,” she said. “With so much to choose from in vibrant places like Aurora, they have a higher expectation than some people might give them credit for, and I think the Aurora Fox does its best to not just meet those expectations, but perhaps set new ones.”