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‘The T Party’ at Forum Theatre

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Just so we’re clear: Natsu Onoda Power’s new devised performance piece is neither an homage to Ted Cruz nor a biography of Michelle Bachmann. In fact, as mentioned in one of several deliciously self referencing moments in The T Party, the show was already well on its way to completion by the time old white people started donning tri-corner hats and demanding to see the president’s birth certificate.

'The T Party' ensemble. Photo by Noe Todorovich Photography.

‘The T Party’ ensemble. Photo by Noe Todorovich Photography.

Billed as “The Return” of a World Premiere that originally debuted as a quasi-workshop last year, The T Party is a multipart exploration of the vast galaxy that is contemporary gender identity and expression. Based on true accounts of trans Washingtonians, The T Party is securely based in the present day. It races across genres and performance styles, smashes the fourth wall and has a wicked sense of humor about itself. Hilarious, poetic, sometimes jarring and occasionally political, The T Party is a ruthlessly creative testament to how potent a tool theatre can be in reflecting back the diversity of human experience. Also, it’s a real fucking good time.

The T Party begins as a simulacrum of an actual party; as the audience gathers in the lobby to chat and buy refreshments, a prom theme emerges: there’s a karaoke machine with generally queer-themed songs, streamers and goody bags, and a photo booth where audience participants are encouraged to don top hats, tiaras, and moustaches (a gimmick that your correspondent happily engaged in). Aside from fulfilling the title of the show, the pre-show “party” serves as a platform for several interactive performance sketches, including a surprising scene about trans discrimination that takes place in the men’s restroom. The T Party probably does not need this first “interactive” portion to evoke the festive atmosphere it strives for, especially because the premise of the first scene of the actual performance is a gender-bending prom. This is only the first of nearly a dozen vignettes of equal or greater imagination; truly, each scene of The T Party is worthy of its own lengthy discussion due to the sheer depth of its intellectual and aesthetic quality.

There is the scene where a Georgetown academic paper (including footnotes) about the socio-sexual behavior of dolphins is translated into a high-energy rap featuring the unitard-clad ensemble getting it on in an apparent marine orgy of various sexual inclinations.

Then there’s the scene where a crossdressing heterosexual man (Brendan Quinn, in a tremendous performance) and a trans woman (Rafael Sebastian) have cocktails in what seems, on the surface, to be a light comedy, but which in fact asks deep questions about what it means to express oneself as a woman, and how that gender expression calibrates other aspects of one’s life, such as sexual orientation.

How about the spoken-word tribute to the male genital organ (delivered with virtuosity by Allie Villarreal) accompanied by a giant projection of what appeared to be a mock phalloplasty rendered in pizza dough?

Or maybe a send-up of gay male nomenclature in the form of a mock nature documentary detailing the strange habits of bears and otters in an ecosystem “on Massachusetts Avenue, right off of Thomas Circle”?

For my money, the best vignette is near the top of the show, where the Internet is represented as a physical space, which includes the hilarious Nehemiak Markos as a roving pop up ad, and represents Facebook as a roaring cacophony of surveys, statuses, and Buzz Feed links. Within this physical (digital) space, a cis woman (Rachel Hynes) and a trans woman (Jonathan Feuer) chat online in a heartbreaking rendition of the drama that is online romance.

The thread that runs through all the various scenes is the sense of free abandon, of outright fun. There is also the terrific ensemble: Jonathan Feuer, Zachary Gilbert, Rachel Hynes, Nehemiah Markos, Brendan Quinn, Rafael Sebastian, Sara Dabney Tisdale, and Allie Villarreal all punch above their weight to deliver performances that are witty and self assured.

For the most part, the design of The T Party well serves its subject. Of special note are the ubiquitous projections by Alex Leidy and G. Ryan Smith which, beamed on to a simple white stage, provides the bulk of the visual impact. The sound design by Thomas Sowers, although seemingly a bit glitchy at the beginning, reveals itself to be an indispensible part of the show. The choreography by Francesca Jandasek deserves a shout out as well, particularly during the achingly hilarious lesbian tango (danced with panache by Sara Dabney Tisdale and Allie Villarreal).

Zachary Gilbert and a panda. Photo by Noe Todorovich Photography.

Zachary Gilbert and a panda. Photo by Noe Todorovich Photography.

It is the auteur herself, however, Natsu Onoda Power, who deserves the highest praise for bringing to life as entertaining and original a production as The T Party. Given her directorial successes of Yellow Face and Astro Boy, it is safe to say that Ms. Power has moved beyond the amorphous and somewhat condescending title of “promising young artist” and now securely occupies an essential place in the DC theatre scene. All of us, whether as artists or audiences, should hope and pray that Power decides to stay here and continue to produce thought-provoking and uniquely theatrical work.

Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.

The T Party plays through January 17, 2015 at Forum Theatre, performing at The Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, Maryland. For tickets call the Box Office at (240) 644-1099, or purchase them online.

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LINK
Magic Time!: ‘The T Party’ at Forum Theatre by John Stoltenberg in his column ‘Magic Time!’ on DCMetroTheaterArts.

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