Cohesion Theatre’s second season kicked off last night with the World Premiere Production of A Little Bit Not Normal, which is also the first play in the company’s Trans* Voices Workshop Series. Ambitious? Yeah. But you don’t get named Baltimore City Paper’s “Best New Theater 2015” for playing it safe. The entire stated mission of Cohesion Theatre Company is a bold one. They aim to “showcase the unity that underlies much of what we consider separate” with the goal of “reaching a deeper understanding of what makes us individuals and what makes us all human.” It’s no small task, but one they are sincerely and energetically committed to achieving.
The premiere of A Little Bit Not Normal is a good example of this artistic vision in action. The play depicts a challengingly eventful few days in the life of a trans* woman named Devon, portrayed with subtlety and aplomb by talented newcomer Erica Burns. Devon, who lives a reasonably quiet life with her partner and her cat, suddenly finds herself weathering a visit from her long-estranged father. Rounding out the stress on Devon’s shoulders are unexpected visits from God (Melanie Glickman), unusually neurotic for a deity; and pratfalling Supraman (Fred Fletcher-Jackson) who provides comic relief and has definitely, definitely no connection to the copyright-protected DC Comics character with a similar name and costume.
And you thought you were having a rough week!
Fortunately, Devon has support through this difficult time. Her partner, Nancy (Cassandra Dutt) is one of those people whose dials are always set to 11. She’s so intense and abrasive, at first I had a hard time seeing the two as a couple. As the show progressed, though – particularly in Act 2 – we are privy to some one-on-one conversations where Nancy lets her guard down and we can really see the connection and love between the characters.
Providing Devon with probably the best advice and most understanding in the show is our protagonist’s cat, Shadow, flawlessly performed by Martha Robichaud. Robichaud’s movements, posture, and precise enunciation make her surprisingly believable as a cat – albeit a talking cat. With imperious feline attitude, Shadow shares pithy bits of wisdom and social commentary that underscore many of the central themes of the play: acceptance, belonging, and the nature of consensus reality. These would seem like overly expository dialogue if spoken by one of the human characters, an unfortunate occurrence which does, in fact, occur several times.
The central dilemma of A Little Bit Not Normal is the relationship between Devon and her father, Patrick, a character of complex emotion played by John Robert Wright with exasperated, but sympathetic sincerity. Years after cutting him out of her life for refusing to respect her identity and persistently misgendering her, now he’s sitting at her dining room table, wanting to talk. Over the course of a few days, the passage of time being cleverly announced by Nancy’s countdown of X number of days until Star Wars opens, dad and daughter deal with a painful family history of mistrust, misunderstanding, betrayal and the rocky road to acceptance that some people never tread.
The show benefitted from an experienced and capable artistic and technical crew, as well. Lana Riggins’ lighting design and sound design coordinated in that often unappreciated way of being so natural and appropriate to the action on stage that you almost don’t notice it. It just works, helping make the natural (and supernatural) world of the play welcoming. My only issue with the sound was the acoustics of the beautiful, but lofty-ceilinged church where the play was performed. I don’t know what one could really do about that, but the reverb effect did make me miss a few lines of dialogue.
Doing double duty as Nancy and the production’s Scenic Designer, Cassandra Dutt constructed a set that clearly delineated several distinct rooms and spaces of action. The door between the bedroom that bisected the stage did cause an obstructed view of a couple areas of the stage, so try to find seats near the center of the house. Dutt’s creation of a second level of the set to represent not-in-the-apartment spaces like outside and the heavens worked beautifully and made good use of the acoustically challenging high ceilings.
Costume Designer Heather Johnston’s sartorial choices made sense for the characters in the show. I particularly appreciated God’s great outfits, particularly the initial deity-appropriate white ensemble. As a fan of his books and Nerdfighteria kingdom, I also loved the brief appearance of author John Green’s Pizza John t-shirt on a kazoo-playing Supraman accompanist. I also could not help but notice Devon’s ruby slippers in several scenes, subtly underscoring her yearning for a place that feels like home in an unaccepting world.
In a time when much of mainstream America’s first contact with trans* people is watching sensationalized news coverage about Caitlyn Jenner, playwright Lillie Franks’ play is both timely and important. Even as a cisgender woman, I can recognize that dramatic coming out stories are not the whole of the trans* experience. Much more illuminating are the day-to-day lives and struggles of a community still fighting for acceptance and safety in a world that is discriminatory and, sadly, dangerous. The cumulative effect of less dramatic affronts like misgendering and improper pronouns or being whispered about and refused from a bathroom that matches your identity may not be as sexy as a celebrity’s transition, but they are more common and ultimately more relatable to the cisgender community. No one of these hateful acts is fatal, but in the aggregate, they can be just as lethal. Just look at the horrifying statistics for trans* suicides.
Depicting the more routine experiences of the trans* community will go a long way in achieving Cohesion Theatre’s goal of fostering an understanding that despite our differences, we are all human. Our similarities far outweigh our differences. Kudos to Cohesion Theatre Company for their Trans* Voices Workshop Series and, notably for including the trans* community in the process.
It was refreshing to see a play about a trans* woman that was written by a trans* woman (Franks), acted by a trans* woman (Burns) and directed by a trans* person (Alice Stanley, who is also one of the Founding Artistic Producers of the company).
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.
A Little Bit Not Normal plays through December 6, 2015 at Cohesion Theatre, performing at the Church on the Square in Canton – 1025 South Potomac Street, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online.