A Little Bit Not Normal – A Show of Trans*
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
Let me start by saying this: Cohesion Theatre Company is very good at a good many things. When I walked into Church on the Square in Canton on Thursday night, I was greeted by a smiling company member who looked competent and professional there with her laptop. She handed me my ticket and suggested I go check out the mead /art show on the first floor. I’m never absolutely sure what mead is, but sounds like alcohol to me, so down I went. The art was great, mostly composed of a series of colorful abstract paintings by Baltimore artist Ania Milo Swann and an interactive video that prompted me to muse on the question “What color is my gender?”. Caitlin Carbone, the new Director of Artistic and Community Engagement at Cohesion, is working her tail off and it shows. The art and video presentation invited me in and were the anti-afterthought. But I’m not remotely smart enough to be a visual art reviewer, nor am I an evaluator of social engagement. I’m a theater critic and the theater is what we’re going to talk about now. A Little Bit Not Normal by Lillie Franks does not suffer from a lack of authenticity. Franks is trans*, as is Alice Stanley, the director, and Erica Burns, the lead actress (this casting is another place where Stanley and Cohesion step absolutely right). Burns plays Devon, a trans* woman who has completed her transition and now lives with her partner, Nancy (Cassandra Dutt) and her cat, Shadow (Martha Robichaud). Out of the blue, Devon’s estranged father, Patrick (John Robert Wright) calls to announce he is coming to visit and attempt to right the wrongs of their past. Warily, Devon agrees and this sets off most of the main action of the play. Franks can certainly write. Lines like “My power doesn’t have teeth,” and “We’re us and that’s what we have to live,” are simple and go directly through you like an arrow to the heart. I also appreciated the subtle characterization of Patrick. It would have been too easy, both for the character and for the audience, to make him screamingly evil. In that case, we would have clicked off our brains and said: “Nope, not me, I would never act like that.” Instead, we are forced to examine where we, too, may have been kind of shitty in our relationships with trans* individuals. This is Franks’ first full-length piece, though, and, as such, I feel that it could have used more reworking. It seems that Cohesion may have pushed the show forward before it was truly ready (background: this was not initially on the Cohesion mainstage schedule, it was supposed to be a workshop – it was only after they didn’t get the rights to their planned first show of the season that Normal was rushed to production). In any case, some of the dialogue starts to sound more like an informational packet than human speech. I also felt like, when Franks wasn’t sure how to move the show forward, she went for what I like to call “the wacky”. Characters like God (yep, that God, played by Melanie Glickman) and the off-brand Supraman (Fred Fletcher) weave their way through the script in an attempt to add dimensionality and comedy to the proceedings. Sometimes this works, other times it feels overlong and like glittery filler. If these sequences were shaped more, they could really start to function as counterpoints, allegories for Devon’s life. Overall, the show has some “show don’t tell” issues – I wanted to see more of the microaggressions and marginalization that Devon faces and not repetitively hear so much about it. It is theater, after all. Added to the rawness of the script is the greenery of the lead. Don’t get me wrong: Burns has an enormous amount of potential. There are some people that you just want to watch, you’re drawn to watch, and it can’t be taught and she’s one of them. She’s going to make a phenomenal actor, but she’s new, a little too new for a show where she has to carry the entire thing on her back. To compensate for some tentativeness on her part, Stanley dialed the other actors wayyyyy up. Dutt, especially, was so high that she was practically yelling. To some extent, I get it, as Nancy uses her “bigness” to smokescreen her sensitivity, but the choice led to a weird energy disparity in her scenes with Devon. They didn’t seem like they were in the same universe. Wright brings some really nice nuances to Patrick, he finds the character’s pain, his confusion and his wrongness. We want to like him and his Dad jokes, and that’s part of the problem. Glickman has a lot of fun playing God (who wouldn’t?) and also occasionally brings some surprisingly effective pathos to the part, particularly in a well-done discussion with Devon in the second act. Ohhhhh. But oh. Did I say before that I wasn’t a huge fan of the wacky? There’s a big exception to that. The cat! Devon can talk to her cat. This whole thing was just fucking delightful and functions exceptionally well as a metaphor for the different realities that people inhabit. Part of the reason that it works is that Robichaud sells it hard. I have three cats and she has either been looking at a lot of Steinlen lately or she’s got feline DNA because her performance was hysterical and puuuuurfect (I apologize). Total, total scene stealer. The set (also Casey Dutt) was your basic flats and Ikea set up, divided in a cleaver way that really did seem organic, though that shaky door was a little distracting.
BOTTOM LINE: While I appreciated a lot of the thought and care that went into it, A Little Bit Not Normal is a dough that hasn’t quite proofed. It’s an important show, an enjoyable one and there is a lot that Franks, Stanley and the cast get right. It just needs a little more time in the baking process, that’s all. I’d rather watch a show like this, though, than one that’s 100% polished and 100% safe. See it.
Running at Cohesion Theatre Company through December 6th.
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