One of the most maddening aspects of the Oscars is that performers — already living their lives on a pedestal — actually exalt their peers even higher.
Rare is the touch of modesty in the face of excessive attention.
But that admirable quality is on full display in the St. Ann’s Warehouse production of “A Life in Three Acts,” a “This Is Your Life”–style retrospective accompanied by excellent photos of one the most significant and successful drag queens of the pre-RuPaul era, Bette Bourne.
Sure, Bourne may not be as famous as Sandra Bullock, but the former performer’s life is certainly more compelling.
“A Life in Three Acts” offers a window into Bourne’s remarkable life, which took him from professional (male) actor, to activist in the Gay Liberation Front, to the leader of Bloolips, one of the more successful gay performance troupes of the 1970s and ’80s.
Bourne, dressed not in full drag, but in a more restrained “Upper West Side drag,” as he puts it, shares the stage with Mark Ravenhill, the director of the show. It is Ravenhill’s lengthy interviews with the “gay icon” — a term Bourne uses with a smirk — which serve as the script.
In fact, both Ravenhill and Bourne actually have the scripts in their hands, but the show avoids feeling premeditated. Bourne, clearly a gifted actor, allows himself to become lost in his early — and amusing — sexual experiences, as well as the grimmer moments, such as his encounters with an abusive father.
Adding to the spontaneous atmosphere are Bourne’s occasional song-and-dance numbers, which are given an extra charm because he is 70 years old. Watching him tap dance is like watching an old burlesque performer go through a routine — something about putting on a show puts a sparkle in even the oldest of eyes.
But Bourne never becomes overly sentimental when remembering his youth — he avoids falling into the cliché of the gay teen filled with anguish about his identity. Instead, his first sexual experience results in a return visit a week later, and his romps with other teenage boys — as well as running from the cops when caught — were “great fun.”
His memories of life in a gay commune in 1970s London are strewn with stories of hard drug use and raids by cops — but the tone remains joyous. Bourne just isn’t that angry.
But Bourne’s face turns grim when recalling the terror of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, recalling the deaths of 100 people he knew, as well as the pain caused by British queen-icon Quentin Crisp when he infamously said, “AIDS is a fad.”
The second act of the retrospective — perhaps the titular “Three Acts” refers to Bourne’s gender-bending — focuses primarily on Bourne’s work with Bloolips, as well as in other mainstream theater.
At one point, Bourne recalls how he took command of the stage when playing a nurse in “Hamlet” at the Globe Theater. After the audience exploded in laughter at the first sound of his voice, he simply turned to them, rolled his eyes, and “got on with the play.”
Despite such moments of acceptance, Bourne disagrees that much progress has been made in terms of gay rights — “Any man here should put on lipstick and a dress and try walking down the street,” he says.
But someone without even a passing interest in drag and the history of gay culture in London and New York should still consider checking out “Three Acts,” because by its conclusion, many will find themselves wishing that this drag-queen/raconteur had more time to share a few more saucy tales.
“A Life in Three Acts” at St. Ann’s Warehouse [38 Water St. at Dock Street in DUMBO, (718) 254-8779] runs through March 28.