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THEATER REVIEW [Trans]formation
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2016-11-23

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Playwright: Various contributors and five devisers. At: Nothing Without a Company & The Living Canvas, Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: NothingWithoutACompany.org; $30. Runs through: Dec. 17

I had an easy time, compared to many, as a cisgender gay man coming out while also growing secure in my masculinity. I can only imagine the challenges for those who come out as transgender, whether gay/lesbian or not, whether with or without surgical transitioning. [Trans]formation ), a new spoken-word and movement work, addresses those issues in a positive, often poetic, and non-confrontational way that stands as a piece of vibrant visual art as much as anything else.

[Trans]formation is performed with a six-person cast who use personal pronouns including he, she, they, "em" and "zhe." All identify as being in some stage of gender transition, some of which is physically apparent as the cast performs the entire piece mostly in the nude. Well, they're perhaps not quite naked, as the company is bathed non-stop in complex projection designs by Chris Owens, making each player part of a living canvas of kinetic art—floral at one moment, aquatic the next and abstract soon after, in a multitude of patterns.

The players tell stories drawn from personal experiences, and they both narrate and interpret as they go. It's no surprise that collectively they have endured bullying, despair, confusion, internal conflict, outsider status, therapy and suicidal thoughts in the process of becoming who they now are, namely trans individuals presenting and expressing themselves with confidence. "We are not computers, we do not need binary," one comments about the traditional male/female divide, while another observes "I've always lived a prisoner to others' perceptions" of how he/she/they should dress, act and identify. Nonetheless, the overall tone avoids angst and is surprisingly playful.

The 90-minute program presents six spoken "chapters" ( as the program calls them ), divided by dance/movement sequences performed to recorded songs. The choreography by Gaby Labotka ( also the director ) and Darling Squire is quite athletic and is performed with agility and surprising grace, given that most of the cast are not trained dancers. The songs are not familiar to me, and the lyrics are difficult to understand although the emotional moods of the music seems appropriate. The performers are Gabriel Faith Howard, Ronen Kohn, Lily Jean, Chase Nuerge, Ben Polson and Kevin Sparrow.

[Trans]formation is quite well done, but will not be to everyone's taste. It qualifies as avant-garde performance work for sure, and yet it has a flower-power vibe as old as my long-past 1970s hippie days. The audience it draws, I suspect, will be folks already converted to the cause of trans progress and rights, and so it will serve much more as a celebratory work than an illustrative one. [Trans]formation holds its head high, alhtough the cause still could use an illustrative or didactic work created for a mainstream audience.


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