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Review: ‘Aphorisms on Gender’ by Alice Stanley Presented by Cohesion Theatre Company in Collaboration with Iron Crow Theatre

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Literally, an “aphorism” is a short phrase that expresses a truth or astute observation. In Alice Stanley’s brief, but powerful, meditation on gender, they [1] have structured the piece itself as a series of aphorisms, short scenes that alternate between a naturalistic family drama, and a more abstract internal monologue, about the tremendous pain and struggle of identity one faces when they are born in to a body that they cannot claim as their own.

Cassandra Dutt Zack Bopst (Cole) and Logan Davidson (Nora). Cassandra Dutt Zack Bopst (left) as Cole and Logan Davidson (right) as Nora in Aphorisms on Gender at Cohesion Theatre Company.

Zack Bopst (Cole) and Logan Davidson (Nora). Photo by Cassandra Dutt.

Taking place over the course of one year, Aphorisms on Gender begins on Christmas Eve, where Peter (Rich Espey) and Molly (Penny Nichols), and their two college aged children, Nora (Logan Davidson) and Max (Fred Fletcher-Jackson), have gathered for their traditional holiday meal. The status quo of this seemingly typical family is upended quickly as conversation turns personal and Max outs his sister as a lesbian. Now, before you think, “really, another ‘coming out’ play,” and as the clang of glasses and the din of silverware is hushed, at that Stanley unflinchingly cuts to the heart of Nora’s struggle and their family’s struggle, which is, in essence society’s struggle. Because Nora may or may not be a lesbian, but that’s not what this play is about.

The play is about Nora’s struggle to find an identity in a world that sees gender as only male or female and it is about her family’s struggle to accept them unconditionally, even though they may not understand. What follows are a series of scenes, perhaps real, or imagined, or both, where Nora tries to explain their feelings to an ex-boyfriend (Zach Bopst), to their brother, and seeks comfort and friendship from a former classmate named Jane, formerly Riley (an excellent Erica Burns). The play ends on Christmas Eve, one year later, where Nora, in a final confrontation with their family, is forced to decide whether the need to be true to themselves is more important than the need to be loyal to their family, a painful choice that I suspect is not uncommon for the thousands of Nora’s among us.

Rich Espey (Peter), Zach Bopst (Cole), Logan Davidson (Nora). Photo by Cassandra Dutt.

Rich Espey (Peter), Zach Bopst (Cole), and Logan Davidson (Nora). Photo by Cassandra Dutt.

Stanley’s has chosen no less than the whole of human identity as their subject matter and the play asks huge, complicated questions on this topic, questions with no definitive answer. And perhaps that is precisely Stanley’s point. Given the legislation that has been in the news in last two weeks in Mississippi (HB 1523) and North Carolina (HB 2), that viciously reduces transgender individuals lives to an argument over bathrooms and sex acts, it is important that we have plays like this to present a nuanced view of these complicated issues.

But in attempting to tackle so much, too often, Stanley accomplishes too little. The play is only 45 minutes and, perhaps, Stanley may want to expand the length to further explore the issues they raise, including, the connection between sexual orientation and gender identity, what does it mean to “transition” and who, in fact, transitions. The play is full of memorable poetry, a section in which Jane compares gender to tone, and its interaction with society results in music, was especially haunting.

Kudos to Stanley for bringing these questions to the fore and to Cohesion Theatre Company and Iron Crow Theatre’s commitment to new work, but is a catalyst for the exchange of ideas and an instigator for social change.

Running Time: 45 minutes, with no intermission.

A post play discussion follows each performance.

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Aphorisms on Gender plays through April 3, 2016 at Cohesion Theatre Company performing at Church on the Square – 1025 South Potomac Street, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased online.

[1] The playwright, Alice Stanley, is transgender and the pronouns “they,” “their,” and “them” refer to Stanley and their work. The same is true of Nora, the main character in the play.

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