SOMMERFUGL, is new play written by Bixby Elliot and directed by Stephen Brackett, both members of the InViolet Theater. The play is loosely based on the Story of Lili Elbe, the first person to have gender reassignment surgery in 1930. This is a well-constructed piece of theater; three talented actors move us through a big story without too much oversimplification and, for the most part, a lot of clarity.
There is no prologue; the lights go out and when they come on, we’re there in the deep end of the subject: who we feel we are versus the body we are born with. We see Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe (Wayne Wilcox) taking stock of his body, naming and describing the parts. We know what is coming and yet we are already in a different place and time than all the transitioning we are hearing about (first- or second-hand ). In this beginning moment, we funnel down to his/her time. The ensemble work is palpable; the acting and production elements have me on the edge on my seat.
Einar, with out any role models from which to gain support begins to realize that the female inside himself is insistently taking over. Once discovered, Lili can not go back in the closet. But there is no closet and that is the charm of the play. We are seeing the world when transitioning was a twinkle in an eye. We are watching the first fledgling seed with nothing to copy take flight. An unborn idea. The story exists within the framework of Grete (Aubyn Philabaum) and Einar/lili’s relationship. Aubyn is a wonderful actress; her through-line is her love for Einar. Grete is well-drawn, but I wondered if the “real” Grete did not have more ugly feelings about the biggest change a husband could make. In that way it seems a bit like a fairy tale. She does reveal frustration and heartbreak but the ugliness factor is missing. And as an audience member I hope the real Grete was exactly like the play and the way Ms Philabaum portrayed her.
Many of the scenes are played with a third character: Claude, Rudolfo or Dr Steuben (Bernardo Cubria). I had a hard time telling Claude and Rudofo apart, both being somewhat gregarious; their interest and acceptance of Einar’s becoming Lili felt similar but more than that Mr. Cubria’s accent and manner in both parts felt the same. It’s the kind of thing only an outside audience member would feel — I am sure the people in the play see and feel the differences from knowing the piece so well. Having a very different speech pattern and/or accent might have made this clearer.
That being said, and much more important, Bernardo Cubria is a delight to watch. And his purpose, for my money, is to represent both halves of the couples’ ideal of a charming man. In that sense his — or the director’s — choice to not make the two characters more distinct fits within the scheme of the play. His portrayal of Claude’s discovery and delight with Lili transported me to a world that revels in the new, a form of enlightenment that is very rare and a wonder to watch. The hardest work is by the stories’ protagonist Einar/Lili Elbe (Wayne Wilcox), who must meet the challenge of believably discovering and becoming his inner female. He does this well, but at times there is a stilted voice quality that took me out of the story. I think this problem might rest in the dialect coaching by Katie Honaker in conjunction with the director which also might have affected Bernardo’s portrayal of Claude and Rudolfo.
The stagecraft complement and create a perfect world for the story to play out in. The set by Jason Sherwood shows us how the characters live: artists who do not have children and do not suffer from lack of money. The costumes by Tilly Grimes take us back in time, showing the couples’ modernism and sophistication. The lights by Zach Blane are stunning; what appears to be a shiny black ceiling with a grid (also part of the set by Jason Sherwood) covers the normal theatrical lights that we see when we go to any live performance. In each of the corner of the grid there is an old filament bulb. What looks like a modern ceiling (with antique bulbs) becomes a permeable vehicle that moves us through the different locations with light that comes through the ceiling as well as from the bulbs themselves. We barely notice the sound design by Stowe Nelson; like a great movie score it does not pay attention to itself and adds to both the reality of each location as well as the emotional tone.
What part of ourselves or in the people around us needs to come out? Can we all be like Greta, and find our way through such big changes in the people we are closest to? Can we, ourselves, change in a way that has not been done without a role model? I’m just getting started! Don’t let the play’s imperfections stop you! All the love that went into this piece shows, my mind never drifted. I highly recommend this piece!
SOMMERFUGL, – Written by Bixby Elliot, directed by Stephen Brackett,
With: Wayne Wilcox (Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe), Aubyn Philabaum (Grete Wegener), Michelle David (Anna/Kira/Nurse), and Bernardo Cubria (Claude/Rudofo/Dr Steuben).
Set Design by Jason Sherwood; Costume Design by Tilly Grimes; Lighting Design by Zach Blane; Sound Design by Stowe Nelson; Casting by Paul Davis of Calleri Casting; Dialect Coaching by Katie Honaker; Dramaturgy and Assistant Direction by Tristan Powell; The Production Stage Manager is Melanie Aponte and the Technical Director/Production Manager is Dylan Luke. SOMMERFUGL, is a InViolet Theater Company production
SOMMERFUGL is at the 4th Street Theater (83 East 4th Street) on Mondays, and Wednesday – Saturday at 7:30 through October 10th.
Running time is 80 minutes with no intermission www.InViolettheater.com