by SOPHIE KERMAN
There are some plays that are so heartfelt that you root for their success before the actors even open their mouths. This is even more true when there are important political and ideological reasons for the play to be written and produced – in this case, creating theater that represents gender identities in a flexible and compassionate way. But while Lisa Flora Meyers’ professional play-writing debut has more than enough willpower to fuel its little theatrical rocket ship, all the cast’s earnestness can’t quite get The Birth of Venus off the ground.
The 20% Theatre Company, whose laudable agenda is to increase the representation of female and transgender artists in theater, has begun its 2011-12 season with the story of Betty (Shannon Troy Jones), a transgender woman with a small mania about going to outer space. Her friends – Ron (Joe Swanson), a widow and single father and Trish (Melanie Wehrmacher), a fiercely independent surgeon – are involved in their own parallel struggles to reconcile their past and present selves. While it would be easy to relax into stereotypical portrayals, each of the three performers brings a particular soul to his or her character: for instance, Jones’s fixation on outer space is weirdly troubling (given the sheer volume of letters sent to NASA), while Swanson’s musings on parenting have a poignantly bittersweet edge.
Meyers, who graduated from Smith College with a double major in theatre and Judaic studies, weaves religion through the script in a way that does not often appear in LGBT-themed plays. Rather than a roadblock to Betty’s transition and acceptance as a woman, Judaism serves as a comforting tie to ancestors that have fewer psychic links to her difficult adolescence. The different ways each character experiences religion – at times ignored, at times struggled with, at times leaned upon – could be likened to their differing experiences of gender, as each facet of a character’s identity goes through subtle shifts and radical transformations.
The clearly-imagined characters and thought-provoking thematic elements convince me that Meyers has a promising future as a playwright. In “Venus,” we see the beginnings of this promise in spite of some structural flaws. Characters often provide personal background through expository monologues, a technique that can feel clunky regardless of the skill of the actors. Their relationships, too, are just a bit too honest to be believable. When Ron confesses his growing feelings for Betty, Trish’s face visibly falls – and while most of us would ignore such an uncomfortable moment, Ron tells Trish point-blank that he can see the disdain on her face. What might feel raw and emotional on a college stage sometimes comes across as wishful thinking in a professional theater: If only we could all be so self-aware as to be able to tell each other exactly what we’re thinking!
What directors Claire Avitabile and Nicole Wilder have done extremely well is to highlight just how much wishing we all do. Whether it is from an inside that doesn’t match the outside (Betty) or just from loneliness (Trish), we are all in a process of dreaming and creating. Meyers greatest success in “Venus” is that she has proven that transgender issues are not just about the LGTB community – they touch on all the myriad of ways we choose or are compelled to transform.
The Birth of Venus
by Lisa Meyers (world premiere)
directed by Claire Avitabile
October 8-23, 2011 – Thursdays through Sundays at 7:30pm
at the Cedar Riverside People’s Center Theatre in Minneapolis
425 South 20th Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55454
Tickets: $12-$20 sliding scale; $10 Students/Fringe. Seating is very limited and reservations are strongly recommended – Reserve at http://www.tctwentypercent.org/season.html or call 612-227-1188 or email email@example.com