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A Life in Three Acts

This utterly charming show details the life and history of British drag icon Bette Bourne.

Bette Bourne in A Life in Three Acts
(© Johan Persson)
At 70 years old, Bette Bourne is filled with a vitality that positively radiates from the stage in the autobiographical two-hander, A Life in Three Acts, now at St. Ann's Warehouse. Written and performed with playwright Mark Ravenhill, this utterly charming show details the British drag icon's life and work, and serves as an informative and entertaining history of some of the changes and developments that have affected gay culture in the last 50 or so years.

The text of the piece is reconstructed from edited transcripts of interviews that Ravenhill conducted with Bourne in the latter's London flat. The two even have their scripts with them, which they consult from time to time. However, the performance is not a literal recreation of an interview, as the pair also engage in a bit of nonscripted banter with the audience; Bourne occasionally steps forward to perform a song (and at one point, a tap dance); and Ravenhill is almost constantly making eye contact with audience members, gauging their reaction while sporting a rather bemused look on his own face.

The first act focuses on Bourne's early years, including his troubled relationship with his father; sexual experiences as a teenager and young adult; training and acting alongside such theater luminaries as Cicely Berry and Ian McKellen; activism with the Gay Liberation Front; discovering drag for the first time; and living in a commune.

The bulk of the second act is devoted to his work with the groundbreaking gender-bending performance troupe Bloolips. Bourne discusses the origins of the group, and relays numerous amusing anecdotes about performing in their shows, which include the wonderfully titled Lust in Space and Get Hur, the latter of which Bourne describes as a "Roman epic."

While Bourne always has an awareness of the audience, his performance within A Life in Three Acts includes several moments when he gets seemingly caught up in the memories he describes, and the emotions they invoke. This is particularly apparent as he reminisces about friends whom he lost to AIDS, as well as the deaths of his father and mother.

Numerous photographs are projected on a screen throughout the performance, providing an added dimension to some of Bourne's tales. Pictures of him as a young man may surprise some theatergoers, as he appears virile and masculine in many of them -- particularly in a nude pinup shot that greets the audience at the top of the second act.

However, as Bourne talks about his life, such images seem much less contradictory, as his view of femininity was never about appearing small or demure. Drag, for him, is not about becoming a woman (although he has played female roles on stage). When he first describes putting on a dress and make-up, he says that it made him feel both dangerous and vulnerable. He is keenly aware of the hostility that often greets his appearance, even now in a supposedly more accepting time than the one in which he came of age. And yet, he somehow seems capable of transforming these reactions into a source of strength that allows him to continue to unabashedly proclaim his identity to the world.