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Teatro Luna walks a mile in another man’s shoes in Machos. Except, well, the company’s not male: this all-woman Chicago troupe usually takes a Latina perspective, often derived from its members’ own experiences. For this show, though, they interviewed or surveyed 100 men around the country, the vast majority Latino, to create what’s essentially a theatrical documentary with women in drag speaking men’s words.

Most female drag shows seem to combine feel-good entertainment with heavy-duty gender pondering, a la the defunct Chicago Kings. Machos is a more straightforward theater piece, resembling Eve Merriam’s The Club, set in a posh 1890s British club and incorporating raunchy songs of the period that highlighted the men’s sexism. The Teatro Luna women started out pissed—at boyfriends, brothers, bosses. But they ended up taking an open-hearted approach to the loaded subject of machismo. As director Coya Paz writes in a program note, during the interviews “we found that a curious thing was happening to us. We wanted to know less about what men thought about women and more about what men thought about themselves.” The time-consuming process, which left room for reflection, has produced a richly nuanced show.

The men generalize about women in only a few sections. In the opening, a rap chorale by all eight performers, they complain about women’s mysterious expectations. But that bit quickly shifts into a recitation of male labels and imperatives: drink beer, don’t cry, check out women even when you don’t want to. And they only discuss girlfriends in stereotypical terms—with a Latino twist—during a funny bull session close to the end of the 90-minute show.

When Machos treads on stereotypical ground, it usually does so delicately, with the sort of detail that ensures that each story evolves. One section begins with a chorus of three men praising their moms. It gradually comes out, though, that one loves his because she waits on him hand and foot (he’ll never leave home), another is actually incredibly annoyed by his “moms” because she gets into his shit all the time (he’ll never marry a woman like her), and the third has so much respect for his hardworking mother that he’s a little too hands-off with other women (he’ll never get laid).

Machos covers a lot of ground in sections that are fairly pointed but blend into a fast-moving whole. The piece shifts quickly from fathers to urinal etiquette to penis size, masturbation, and body image (men not only worry—they worry about worrying). One man sees himself as cheating on his wife with himself, which leads seamlessly to a monologue by a self-proclaimed family man who loves his wife—and has had roughly 48 liaisons with other women. Sports fanaticism gets treated both lightly and seriously. But the show’s hands-down showstopper is a hilarious boy band parody, whose refrain is “I’m not gay.” That’s followed by a matter-of-fact, humorous, yet insightful look at a gay relationship.

Two things keep Machos from being just another funny show about gender stereotypes: one, it’s not always funny, and two, it’s often painstakingly specific. Among its not-so-rosy subjects are drinking, the emotional abuse of men perceived as gay (whether they are or not), and physical violence against women. That section begins with men expressing a wide range of opinions, from the stance that men should never, ever hit women to the notion that all women need to be kept in line with force. The bit concludes with a monologue so persuasive you feel you’re watching a real person deliver his own story. This man hit his wife, but under circumstances so extreme he felt he had to: she was attacking him with a knife, and he was holding their daughter. Even the most militant feminist should see his point—and anguish at breaking his own code of honor.

So why are women playing men in a piece about machismo? Turns out it’s a brilliant move. These performers are amazingly adept at adopting male gestures, facial expressions, and vocal mannerisms. True, wearing men’s clothing, hairstyles, and facial hair and adding strap-ons does part of the job, but the performers’ physical embodiment of their characters is what makes them truly convincing. They inhabit them so fully that they get a curious gestalt going: in your mind they go from men to women and back again over and over, in split-second moments of perception. This act of imagination, on their part and ours, can only be healing.

Despite its humor, Machos goes beyond the lighthearted songs and stories of most revues. The complexity of its characters and tales creates the conflict in a piece that never truly comes to any conclusion about machismo. That in itself takes courage in our gender-war-torn times. Teatro Luna’s acts of emotional transformation are an answer of sorts to the vexed question of what men want. They may be the most any of us can do.v