In Shakespeare's day, all cast members had members. The illustrious age of vaudeville took drag one step further by giving birth to the first male impersonator, Annie Hindle. A top-notch drag king who wooed the ladies into fanatical states of euphoria (and generous tipping), Hindle also had a remarkable personal life, in which she managed to legally marry another woman. Acclaimed Irish writer Emma Donoghue's play Ladies and Gentlemen -- currently being produced by the Shee Theatre Company -- is based on Hindle's life as a performer and as a wife (or husband, as it were).
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The English-born Hindle was a woman of tremendous intelligence and audacity who often performed on New York's vaudeville stages with female impersonator Gilbert Saroney. After leaving what was believed to be an abusive marriage, Hindle fell in love with her stage dresser, Annie Ryan, and eventually married her by either tricking or bribing the priest who performed the services. Donoghue first learned of Hindle through an article she read in an 1891 issue of the New York Sun, and was immediately compelled by her story, both for its investigation of gender and for its sheer theatrical nature. Much of the play -- directed by Virginia Reed and filled with song -- takes place in the theater, where Hindle and Saroney worked their swapping-of-the-sexes magic.
"I'm very drawn to that early feminist idea that gender is an invention and we shouldn't let it weigh too heavily," says Donoghue during a recent phone conversation, adding that while the onstage Hindle was "a real stumper, a roaring shake-the-house-down man," her life behind the scenes was different (and calmer). In fact, the two Annies eventually lived as a bourgeois lesbian couple in the burbs. "You might have thought they lived in Greenwich Village," marvels Donoghue, "but they actually lived in dresses on the New Jersey shore."
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