Brooklyn-based transgender playwright Sylvan Oswald was always writing "trouser roles" into his earlier plays. However, with Pony, a world-premiere drama presented by About Face Theatre as part a larger Woyzeck Project festival around Chicago, Oswald felt secure enough to feature transgender characters outright.
"I was really interested in female masculinity," Oswald said about his earlier trouser-role characters of women portraying men. It was a way for Oswald to counter stereotypical representations of women just as girlfriends or wives. "I was interested in butch-ness and androgyny."
Yet those trouser role characters created a lot of confusion for many of Oswald's friends and mentors. Although there is a tradition in opera and many early versions of Peter Pan to have pubescent boys or young men often portrayed by female performers, many more audiences equate women dressed as men to just be temporary disguises as in so many Shakespearean romantic comedies.
With all of the gender questioning, Oswald came to the realization that his characters were actually transgender: "I was writing around this the whole time and it was eye-opening for me because this is where I realized I needed to start."
In the creation of Pony, Oswald took inspiration from Georg Büchner's fragmentary drama Woyzeck, which was left unfinished at the playwright's death in 1837. Büchner based Woyzeck on an actual crime where a soldier, displaying signs of insanity, murdered his ex-mistress.
Oswald looked to Woyzeck in terms of structure for Pony, and as a way to create a dialogue between the two plays. Oswald places Pony "on the other side of the woods from Woyzeck," though he also describes its historical setting "in a kind of now."
Pony is the name of the new guy who is constructing a male identity for himself as he enters a new town. Pony attracts the attention of an obsessive waitress named Marie, but is also pursued by young trans-man named Heath.
"The cast kind of represents different position on the queer and trans-dial," Oswald said. "Everybody in world of this play was assigned female at birth, but they present themselves in different ways."
Through Pony, Oswald was able to explore some of the complexities and antagonisms between the transgender and queer communities. For instance, there's an older butch lesbian character who expresses plenty of anger toward a younger trans guy.
"Some of these dynamics have been playing out in the LGBT community and I feel that they need to be talked about," Oswald said. "We need more conversation and more representation."
Oswald is honored to have Pony run in repertory at the Chopin Theatre with The Hypocrites' new staging of Woyzeck in a new adaptation by former artistic director Sean Graney. Oswald is also amazed at how About Face Theatre Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar (who also directs Pony) has been able to reach out to so many other theater companies to create The Woyzeck Project festival.
For instance, Oracle Productions' staging of David Steiger's translation of Woyzeck continues through April 30 at 3809 N. Broadway. Other companies will present modernized staged readings at the Chopin Theatre like Skin by Naomi Izuka for Route 66 Theatre Company at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 2, and Doyle Avant's Woyzeck of Sarajevo for The Inconvenience at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 3.
Collaboraction is also getting into the mix with two shows. Franz Fest: a Woyzeck Project Party/Performance Exploratory is a multi-artist deconstruction of Büchner's play involving dancers, puppetry and more (7:30 p.m. May 6 and 9 p.m. May 7 at the Flat Iron Building, 1575 N. Milwaukee), while a revival of Brett C. Leonard's critically acclaimed Guinea Pig Solo (which updated Woyzeck to the wars of today) is presented in a free reading at the Chopin Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 9.
Although The Woyzeck Project glaringly omits Alban Berg's influential and expressionistic 1925 opera, Wozzeck (recently revived in New York by the Metropolitan Opera), Chicago Opera Vanguard is on hand to offer some remedy through "Voice Check, A Cabaret," which features musical selections from the opera and by other Woyzeck-inspired pieces by musicians like Tom Waits and others at 7:30 p.m. May 10 at the Chopin Theatre.
Oswald is glad that his Pony gets to be a part of The Woyzeck Project mix, adding that "queer and trans people need to be dramatically in their own stories." And with the classic dramatic inspiration for Pony playing on its off nights, Oswald is happy that audiences will have such a convenient way to draw parallels between the two works.
About Face Theatre's Pony and The Hypocrites' Woyzeck headline The Woyzeck Project and play in repertory now through Sunday, May 22, at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. Tickets are $28 per show or $48 for both shows. Call 866-811-4111. For more information on The Woyzeck Project, visit www.aboutfacetheatre.com or www.the-hypocrites.com .
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