by SOPHIE KERMAN
For both political and theatrical reasons, the story of gender transition is not told enough. Changing one’s gender presentation is by definition a form of theater; a dress can become a costume, and facial hair can transform a bearer of XX chromosomes into someone who is confident walking into the men’s bathroom. In addition to the uniqueness of each individual experience of feeling trapped in the wrong body, there are also the high interpersonal stakes of telling friends and family that the awkward girl they knew is gone, replaced by a much more self-assured but somewhat unfamiliar man.
In this world premiere of Changes in Time (actually three short plays about the same character), playwright EB Boatner takes a look at three different stages in the transitioning process, each about 20 years apart. Wishes portrays an uncomfortable moment between two friends at summer camp; Dresses follows the main character Lorraine, now in her mid-30s, as her mother tries to force her into a bridesmaid’s dress; and Changes takes places after Laurence has been living as a man for six years.
One of the strongest parts of Boatner’s writing is in the way he captures the language and the cultural norms of the 1950’s, 1970’s, and 1990’s; the characters are distinct citizens of their own times. The 20% Theatre Company, under Claire Avitabile‘s direction, also does an excellent job with the details – everything from the characters’ mannerisms to the handling of an old car is carefully thought out to provide a vivid historical setting with minimal scenery.
The three plays, however, are uneven. The standout of the trio was Dresses, both for its crisp writing and for the fine-tuned and nuanced performances by Heather Spear as Lorraine and Muriel Bonertz as Margaret, Lorraine’s mother. As Margaret struggles with her child’s gender identity, we see generational differences being played out with compassion for both characters’ individual points of reference. It is the kind of play where each gesture and glance speaks volumes; more is said in that 30 minutes of theater than in many full-length shows I have seen.
The other two plays fall prey to different flaws. Wishes is cute and has an interesting twist, but doesn’t mine its subject matter (gender identity vs sexual orientation) quite enough to achieve real emotional depth. On the other hand, Changes falls prey to a more conventional problem in GLBT theater: as Laurence (in a solid performance by first-time actor Chris Little) confronts his father with his new name and gender presentation, the script gets mired in explanations that, at this point in Twin Cities theater, many viewers might feel they no longer need. (The fact that it is set in a funeral home is particularly unfortunate; Laurence’s poor mother seems entirely forgotten in the father-son clash of wills.)
Despite some shortcomings, however, Changes in Time is an interesting and well-executed primer on transgender issues. Those familiar with the trans community may not find the revelations they hope for, but they will find some top-notch theater in Dresses. It makes me hopeful that GLBT theater is, after decades of needing to justify its existence, moving beyond explanations and into the real drama of fashioning an authentic identity in a sometimes hostile environment.