From the moment Matthew Sunderland steps onstage at The Sanctuary in Donnie’s new play TRANS-formation you sense you’re going to be in for an interesting ride. Sunderland stars as George/Christine in this 70-minute drama about the transsexual pioneer Christine Jorgensen, and the way he wraps himself around the story of this fascinating true-life character is impressive: his clear sharp tenor voice, masculine but not entirely; his body language, so firmly between; his immediate link with the audience, forged by the urgency to tell his tale.
And what a tale. Donnie (the pen name of Donald Horn, who is also director, scenic and sound designer, and producer through Triangle Productions, the company he founded in 1989) has done his homework and assembled a smart, deeply informed play about Jorgensen, concentrating on the young Army veteran’s decision to undergo sex-change surgery and become a she. It’s a taut tale, with just two other actors, both of whom also are superb: Jacquelle Davis as Jorgensen’s sister Dolly (with a cameo as a schoolteacher with a mean streak) and Mark Pierce as Dr. Christian Hamberger, the Danish endocrinologist who made the transformation happen. Both Dolly and Dr. Hamberger have very human and natural friendships with George/Christine, and that’s crucial to the play’s success. The doctor talks science. George talks feelings. Out of their creative collaboration, Christine is born.
TRANS-formation happens mostly before George became Christine (a name she adopted to honor Dr. Hamberger), in the process becoming a media sensation. Though little-known today, she was a key figure in America’s slowly shifting attitudes toward gender identification, inching toward an understanding of sex and gender as a cultural and biological continuum. Declaring that if people wanted to see her or hear her they were going to have to pay for it, Jorgensen became an actress and nightclub entertainer, toured college campuses frequently in the 1970s and ’80s, and helped the nation begin to ease its fear of the sexual unknown. As she once said, she gave the sexual revolution “a good swift kick in the pants.”
But that freedom didn’t come easily, and George’s struggle to become Christine is the focus of this play. Born and raised in the Bronx, George sensed from a young age that nature had made a mistake: He was a girl in a boy’s body. As hard as this is to deal with now, it was excruciatingly difficult in 1940s America. He graduated from high school in 1945, was drafted into the Army soon after, and then returned to civilian life, where he became increasingly convinced that he needed to undergo sex reassignment surgery. To do so he had to leave the United States and move to Copenhagen, where Dr. Hamberger started him on hormone therapy. Surgeries in 1951 and 1952 completed the process.
When I was young, Christine Jorgensen was something of a celebrity, an exotic head-scratcher to the mainstream culture, someone people laughed about (sometimes a little nervously) or tut-tutted about or assigned to the devil’s ranks somewhere above or below the likes of the stripper Tempest Storm. Occasionally, people considered her seriously and allowed their horizons to open up a bit.
Newspaper people knew her story well, or thought they did, and when I was beginning my career in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it wasn’t unusual to hear a crusty old copy editor crack a Christine Jorgensen joke. Gradually I came to realize there was an entire brave life beneath the punch line, and it was going to survive, because it was stronger than the jokes. TRANS-formation, the play, gets down to that real person, the one who was so dimly understood and yet persisted, and reveals the quiet bravery that came before the glitz. It wasn’t exotic. It was just life.
TRIANGLE HAS PAIRED TRANS-formation smartly with a revival of The Madness of Lady Bright, Lanford Wilson’s short 1964 solo play about an aging queen who is possibly losing his mind, certainly caught up in a web of recurring memories, and possibly succumbing to the grief of deep and irresolvable loneliness. Lady Bright, as performed sensitively by Gary Norman, can be playful and funny but is mostly melancholy, worn down by memories of one-night stands and unable, anymore, to connect with anyone (in the play, literally: He repeatedly picks up his phone, dials someone – anyone – and gets no answer).
This is one of Wilson’s early plays, and a bit of a period piece, from a time when being gay in America was considerably more difficult than it is now. But time loops back and forth, and here we are again, in a period of ascendant hatreds and prejudices of various sorts, and the loneliness and pain are real. Norman, under Horn’s direction, brings a deep and somehow dignified vulnerability to a character who should not be forgot.
THURSDAY’S OPENING NIGHT HOUSE for this well-done pair of shows was exceedingly sparse, and that’s unfortunate. It is unfortunate because it was not accidental: The production has been boycotted, Horn said, by much of Portland’s transgender community. The reason: George/Christine was not played by a transgender actor. Horn said he had an open casting call in Portland and up and down the West Coast, without reference to sexual orientation, and although some transgender actors auditioned, he felt Sunderland was better for the role. “I was seeking the best person to be the lead in this production, as we always do,” Horn said. Considering Sunderland’s performance (and considering that the pool of transgender actors is not large), it’s hard to argue that he got it wrong.
One is free, of course, to go or not go to any performance of any play for any reason one chooses. But theater is about making connections among people, and acting is an art of empathy: One moves out of one’s self into another person’s skin. It is also a skilled craft. A director needs to ask, Who can best make the transformations this story calls for? What will work best for the audience?
My feeling? A boycott is self-defeating and misdirected. You, of course, are free to disagree.
Triangle Productions’ double bill of The Madness of Lady Bright and TRANS-formations continues through Feb. 4 at The Sanctuary @ Sandy Plaza. Ticket and schedule information here.
ON FRIDAY NIGHT I DROVE to Twilight Theater Company, which performs in a little upstairs space in a commercial building on North Lombard and Brandon streets in North Portland. The attraction was Lewis Galantiere’s English adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone, in a production directed by the veteran Tobias Andersen. Andersen has a penchant for literary scripts – the last show I’d seen that he directed was Gore Vidal’s brittle and intriguing Cold War era period piece Visit to a Small Planet at Lakewood – and Antigone fits that bill.
It’s also more than a bit Brechtian, a dialectic that builds an argument and a counterargument and urges the audience to ping-pong between the two. There are speeches and speeches, which can be long but are well-written and generally well-handled. On one side is Antigone, the absolutist, arguing that the sin of her father-in-law-to-be, Creon, must be challenged at all costs, even if the cost is her own life. On the other side is Creon, who speaks for pragmatism and realpolitik and argues that compromise is necessary to good governance and good citizenship. (Considering that Anouilh wrote his own adaptation in occupied France in 1944 and needed to get it approved by German censors, the play represents a daring realpolitik of its own.)
It is the irony and perhaps the tragedy of the play that Creon’s own betrayal of his principles – his refusal to allow Antigone’s brother an honorable burial, on pain of death – brings everything tumbling down. There’s an echo of this in Hamlet, too: If the prince had ignored his father’s ghost’s cry for revenge and just let things go, the kingdom wouldn’t have stumbled and become ripe for Fortinbras to pluck. At a time when politics has become more and more divided and extreme, with the hard left and hard right often echoing each other’s tactics, the Galantiere/Anouilh version of Antigone’s ancient Greek tale seems uncomfortably up-to-date.
This is a community theater production, but Andersen has a firm hand on it and it’s well-done. I particularly liked Chris Murphy’s solid and insinuating performance as the Chorus, who narrates and comments on the action; and the other leads – Amy Lichtenstein as Antigone, Jim Butterfield as Creon, Mikayla Albano as Antigone’s sister Ismene – give supple, well-formed performances, too.
Twilight Theater Company’s production of Antigone continues through Feb. 11. Ticket and schedule information here.