The truth of gender; the myth of gender. It’s small to hear but large to know and even larger to understand, respect, and accept. Appearing as a part of the Trans* Voices Workshop Series, Cohesion Theatre Company presents Aphorisms on Gender, a world premiere by Alice Stanley. Co-Directed by Caitlin Carbone and Melanie Glickman, this poignant one-act play addresses a great number of issues regarding the big and small truths of gender identity, including its interwoven connection to sexual orientation and sexual history. A remarkably smart and insightful piece, Stanley’s work sheds light on a great deal of subjects relating to gender identification and speaks to audiences of all genders in a fluid and openly honest voice.
Stanley has a masterful way of developing a succinct plot, fully actualized characters, and deep messages with symbolic overtones that are laced throughout the production design elements all in the short space of a one-act play. When addressing the issues of gender identity, the spectrum has grown exponentially in recent days— this is not to say that suddenly there are more possibilities that sprouted outside of the gender binary overnight but rather that there is a more readily heightened awareness that these identities outside of the binary exist— and Stanley’s work brings insightful and evocative questions to the forefront of the discussion. Can you identify as or be a lesbian if you are not a woman? Why are sexual orientation and gender identity inextricably linked? Why do they have to be so tightly wound around one another?
Stanley delivers well-developed tones for each of the character’s voices and infuses humorous sarcasm into the work, particularly with the character of Nora. Some of the analogies Stanley has worked into the dialogue exchanges are both snappy and sound, like the “vampire closet” bit which occurs during an exchange between Nora and her brother Cole. There are other moments of dialogue that are somewhat startling and jarring, the blatant question of “So what are your pronouns?” from Jane’s character, which at first feels abrupt but as the intention settles in and the notion that this would be the euphoric and utopian fashion of respecting everyone’s identity washes over the audience, it ends up feeling perfect.
The crafting of both Trans* gendered characters and cis-gendered characters is handled exceptionally well and with an earnest approach to both viewpoints in Stanley’s work. They do not set out to vilify the parent characters, only expose their ignorance, confusion, and resistance in a way that is both functional to the story and realistic to how things all too often play out among the family dynamic. They capture innocent ignorance in a humorous fashion with the character of Cole (Zach Bopst) while showcasing the opposite of willful ignorance in the father character of Peter (Rich Espey) and the pair juxtaposed together gives a more fully explored portrait of the family relationships when it comes to addressing Nora’s transition. Stanley has a strikingly profound statement in the script that states that the transition is not for the person who is transitioning as they have been their identity their whole life, it is a transition from hiding into publicity, a transition for those outside to accept and respect that person’s identity. This is one of the most poignant moments of the piece.
Stanley, who also serves as the show’s Sound Designer, makes a beautiful comparison to the tone that our genders make and how that tone differs once it encounters other outside forces, like people and family and acceptance and non-acceptance. This is reflected through a somewhat neutral pulse of sound heard between scene changes and whenever it is called into question. Stanley’s writing features flashback moments, which are clearly demarcated with an assist from Lighting Designer Lana Riggins. Using muted blue lighting and cross-faded shadows effects across the moments of flashback, Riggins symbolically represents the way the mind works— hiding our darker moments in fuzzy clouds of dim light— while simultaneously clueing the audience into the time shift.
Directors Caitlin Carbone and Melanie Glickman take to the performance with an experienced eye. Their opening blocking sequence creates the illusion that the characters exist outside of time and yet simultaneously in the present moment. Combined with Riggins’ lighting effects, this creates a powerful and poignant opening as the title of the play is discussed by its definition and intention. Carbone and Glickman keep the pacing of the performance moving steady, not too quickly nor too slowly. This is a critical component to the success of Stanley’s writing as the dialogue has a witty yet earnest life to it that could easily be compromised with ill-pacing.
The performances across the board are solid. Penny Nichols and Fred Fletcher-Nelson. as the mother Molly and boyfriend/ex-boyfriend Max respectively, give sturdy performances of the stereotypes that Stanley has written into their characters. While their responses to Nora’s transition and questions and confusion do seem rather stereotypical, Stanley manages to write them into the script in such a way that does not feel trite or overdone. Nichols and Fletcher-Nelson are convivial and earnest, even if what they’re saying is difficult and at times disgusting to hear.
Zach Bopst, as the cute and clueless brother character Cole, is the perfect foil to Rich Espey’s father character. The comforting concern which Bopst’s character shows for Nora is generated from a place of love and acceptance even if it’s inadvertently motivated by ignorance and misunderstanding. Espey’s portrayal of the father is spot on in regards to willful misunderstanding and overall and outright refusal to accept Nora for who they are expressing themselves as and identifying themselves to be. There is a climactic build of anger that Espey handles with vigor near the end of the production that is all too realistic but in an important manner.
Logan Davidson is the central focus of the performance. Ze have a striking handle on the mindfulness required of the character that Stanley has created. With hints of levity blended into their sincerity, Davidson delivers a refreshingly honest portrayal to the confusion and emotional turmoil that the character is experiencing in trying to come out to their family. Another brilliant and brutal line that Stanley has penned into the script, “…it’s hard to be who you are if it makes other people angry…” fits the bill of the character’s struggle so perfectly that it brings a tear to the eye.
Davidson’s interactions with Jane (Erica Burns) are some of the most evocative in the piece. Burns’ character appears initially as a state of conscious mind, with little asides delivered both to Nora and the audience simultaneously, often as a framework intro or outro to a scene. Burns is convivial, honest, and open in this character portrayal and displays a warming comfort in her own skin upon the stage. This makes the awkwardly adorable interactions between Jane and Nora near the end of the production too heartwarming for words. A remarkable job is done by both performers handling all manner of emotions throughout this production.
Talk-backs will be held after the performances for questions to be answered, and they are worth attending in addition to the performance itself which is a great many things, perhaps the most praiseworthy being revitalizing and expressively open.
Running Time: Approximately 45 minutes with no intermission
Aphorisms on Gender plays through April 3, 2016 at Cohesion Theatre Company currently in residence at Church on the Square in Canton— 1025 S. Potomac Street in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.