nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 10, 2008
Gender is simple. A person is either female or male. Agreed? Okay, maybe it can sometimes get a bit more complicated. Say a person born as a female identifies, in her mind, as a male. As our society slowly becomes more enlightened, we begin to become more comfortable with transsexuals—individuals who undergo the biological and psychological transformation of their body and sex role from female to male, or vice versa. Ultimately, a person will end up one or the other, so that's easy enough to understand, right?
Uhm, wrong. Gender identification, we are coming to learn, becomes more personalized and more difficult to pin down the more we look at it. Kestryl Cael Lowrey's solo show XY(T) challenges us to embrace, or at least understand, the complexities of the issue. Lowrey identifies himself (using the male pronoun) as a transgender butch, and upon his first appearance onstage in an oversized suit, he gives the impression of a puckish young man still going through puberty. The piece is about unlayering—literally and intellectually—and over the next 50 minutes, as Lowrey reveals his story and sheds layers of clothing, we understand that from an oversimplified, "either/or" schema of gender, Lowrey simply can't be defined. Testosterone, the central focus of the piece, is an elixir of masculinity that offers power, aggression, strength, and intense sexual drive, and Lowrey has taken the hormone to explore embodying these feelings without actually being (or wanting to become) an anatomical man.
These may not be easy concepts to grasp, but Lowrey accepts the contradictions and admirably meets his audience where we are. The show is a production of Lowrey's company, PoMo Freakshow, which looks to the spirit of the sideshow (and the concept of "freaks") to elaborate the limits of humanity. Undoubtedly it's a raw and unpolished performance, resulting in a very direct experience for the audience. With a stool, layers of clothing, and a few prop items employed when needed, then dropped on the floor, most of the performance consists of direct narrative to the audience.
Lowrey sometimes plays other characters. This works very well when another individual sheds some light on the matter. Mily (formerly Emily), a butch lesbian who makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look puny, expresses her disdain towards women (like Amanda, Lowrey's previous female identity) who take testosterone to make themselves more butch, as opposed to women who choose to express their masculinity naturally. Lowrey also uses physical performance to highlight key events, with varied impact. A slow-motion, heightened moment of injecting his very first testosterone shot is arresting and important, while a satyr-dance illustrating his use of a strap-on dildo with his boyfriend may overstate the obvious.
As the "freak" at the center of the show, Lowrey maintains a likeable, sympathetic persona which helps us digest his challenging ideas. However, I wonder if this user-friendly facade may block some emotional vulnerability from coming out in his performance. While he bravely employs his body to express himself, he brushes over opportunities to engage emotionally with the story. A director's eye to help him delve into the this aspect of his performance—and provide more imaginative ways to handle the props/costumes that litter the stage—could make the impact of the piece even stronger. (Sassafras Lowrey is the one billed collaborator, serving as production manager for the show.) Still, Lowrey's voice makes a vital contribution to an evolving understanding of gender, prods us to transcend labels of "freakishness," and reminds us that whether male, female, or transgender, under the clothes and the flesh we're all human.