"I've never been more proud to have my ass on a poster."
Los Angeles-based actor/playwright Erica Flor laughed when she confirmed that it was her posterior in publicity shots to promote Proboscis Theatre Company's STRAP-ON, a 2016 two-person play with movement she co-created with fellow performer Madelyn Robinson and director Jeff Mills. All three are making their Chicago debuts at Links Hall with STRAP-ON, which previously played in California at the Hollywood Fringe Festival and at Center Stage Theater in Santa Barbara.
Despite its potentially playful title, STRAP-ON is not a comedy about a wayward adult novelty. Flor and her collaborators created the theater piece after she was shocked to learn about a controversial "gender fraud" trial in the United Kingdom.
In 2015, a 25-year-old British woman named Gayle Newland was convicted of three counts of sexual assault after pretending to be a man over a two-year period and repeatedly using a prosthetic penis to be intimate with a blindfolded female friend, also in her 20s. Newland faced an eight-year prison sentence, which caused much outrage in the LGBTQ community ( especially since the judge had been far more lenient in another case when sentencing a convicted heterosexual pedophile ).
Newland is currently out on bail after a retrial was ordered last year. But Flor first found out about Newland's predicament by reading news stories on the Internet during the trial. Not only did Flor ponder the practicalities of Newland presenting as male for so long, but also the high-stakes implications of the intimacy and betrayal from both women being aired so publicly.
"Having this huge court case come about really did kind of shake me," said Flor, who openly identifies as bisexual. "And as soon as I read it, I sent it to my director and said, 'This has to be a play.'"
Jeff Mills, the founder and artistic director of Proboscis Theatre Company, likes to focus on original movement/spoken word devised pieces often with historical characters and a documentary approach to research. So for the creation of STRAP-ON, Mills pressed Flor and Robinson to obtain court transcripts from the ongoing trial. He also steered the two actors to try out a number of improvisational exercises based upon their documents and shared life experiences.
"There's a sort of 'Jerry Springer' sensationalized aspect to this story that is definitely there, and I guess we try to use that to get butts into seats," said Mills, who recently moved from the L.A. area to Chicago when he was hired for an assistant professorship at The Theatre School at DePaul University. "But really what we're afterfrom the testimony and the real stories these women were tellingthey were really lonely people who fell in love."
In STRAP-ON, Flor and Robinson play heightened versions or their actor selves looking over official court documents and media stories. Then the two imagine and dramatize situations based upon their own conjecture. Flor takes on the role of Newland, while Robinson plays "V" ( the accuser was only named as "victim" in the transcripts, but everyone agreed that was too much of a loaded label to give her much more sympathy ).
"We came to the mutual decision that this has to be two women telling this story," Flor said. "Showing each side and as many scenarios for each person's point of view was absolutely crucial to the case and their relationship."
Since the two actors also portray other characters like the judge and lawyers, Flor added, "We are wearing a lot of hatsnot literally but figuratively."
Both Flor and Mills regret that STRAP-ON is having such a short Chicago run due to availability issues. But Mills hopes the production will be a calling card to display an example of his directing and play creation work. Flor is excited to be making her Chicago debut as both a writer and performer in a piece exploring the fraught boundaries of desire and wildly differing truths.
"We're just trying to explore what could have happened, but also find the essence," said Flor about the relationship between Newland and "V." "Because at the heart of it, there is love that was tragically broken apartwhether it was by someone's deception or someone's fear."
Proboscis Theatre Company's Chicago premiere of STRAP-ON plays three 7 p.m. performances only from Thursday, March 30, through Saturday, April 1, at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets are $20 and $10 for students and seniors. Call 773-281-0824 or visit LinksHall.ticketfly.com or JMProboscis.com .
The Right Brain Project is currently producing the Midwest premiere of Electra Garrigo, by the late gay Cuban playwright Virgilio Pinera. The 1948 play is a Cuban take on Sophocles' Greek tragedy Electra, and was seen at the time as a harsh critique of the country's totalitarian regime. Electra Garrigo continues through Saturday, April 15, in a tiny fourth-floor studio space at 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Tickets are $20 and $15 for students; visit TheRBP.org .