Stories about trans people in film, television, and theatre are few and far between. Even rarer are stories about trans folks written in their own voices, rather than by outsiders who may or may not understand their experiences. Last week I wrote about I Am My Own Wife, an About Face Theatre production that revamped an existing docudrama to focus on trans perspectives. Now, Nothing Without a Company and The Living Canvas have joined forces to present an entirely new kind of work about the experiences of trans and other gender non-conforming people. Developed, written, and performed by trans, fluid, nonbinary, and intersex people, [Trans]formation offers a unique perspective on gender and the people who, finding that they don’t fit into a binary box, seek to forge a new path for themselves instead.
[Trans]formation features six performers of various genders, all of whom perform nude. Beautifully designed projections by Chris Owens dance over the performer’s bodies as they move and speak, transforming them into sometimes literal, mostly abstract representations of the subjects at hand. Watching the performers themselves become fluid works of visual art is gorgeous and stirring and is one of the production’s most compelling elements. Audience members are invited to join in on the fun with an optional portion at the end of the show, in which anyone who wishes to can disrobe and join the performers onstage. Although I did not participate, watching the performers and audience members alike dance joyously in the light of the projections was wonderful.
The show excels in moments when performers speak to their specific lives and experiences. Ronen Kohn aka Ezekiel’s letter to their breasts, which had been surgically removed five years earlier, is a particularly moving section that explores the complex emotions surrounding that experience. Other performers share childhood memories and other formative moments in their journey to find and express their true selves. Chase Nuerge aka Zhey uses quotes from Macbeth to describe ems dysphoria surrounding ems female body and menstruation in particular, which is a powerful and effective re-framing of those famous lines. Most heartbreaking of all is a tribute to all the trans people murdered in the last year, simply for being who they are.
Where the show loses some of its strength is in generalities and borderline clichés. A recurring metaphor that compares gender non-conforming folks to caterpillars in various stages of turning into butterflies makes sense, certainly, but butterflies, chrysalises, and caterpillars are obvious, overused imagery for transformation that could perhaps be replaced with something more unique. The performers talk about being bullied in school, an experience that must have been markedly different for a gender non-conforming person than it would be for say, someone who is overweight or not conventionally attractive, and yet the language used to describe these events is so general that it might have come out of anyone’s middle school diary.
At times the vagueness takes over so much that it is almost unclear what is trying to be communicated. Compensating for a sometimes weak script, however, are sections of dance and movement, accompanied by music, that seem to get at something deeper and more true than the words do. A piece towards the end of the performance that makes clever use of white button-down shirts to communicate the experience of existing in a world where one does not fit in is unique, fun, and moving all at once.
In spite of some textual weaknesses, there is strength and bravery permeating every aspect of [Trans]formation. There is bravery in exposing one’s naked body onstage. There is bravery in proudly owning one’s identity in a world that would quash it. There is bravery in amplifying the voices of trans, genderqueer, nonbinary, and intersex people in a time where such amplification is needed more than ever. Go see this play. See these brave people tell their stories. Exist, for a few hours, in a world where everyone’s gender is not just respected, but celebrated. Witness a stage where there is vulnerability and safety together. In times like these, shows like [Trans]formation matter, and Nothing without a Company and Living Canvas have produced a piece of theatre that is desperately and urgently needed.
Location: The Vault at Collaboration Studios in The Flat Iron Arts Building
1579 N Milwaukee Ave. Chicago, IL 60622
Regular Run: Thursday, November 17th, 2016 - Saturday, December 17th, 2016
Thanksgiving week: Performance on Monday, November 21st at 8pm instead of Thanksgiving Day.
Times: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm.
Tickets: To purchase tickets, click here.