Christine Jorgensen Reveals
nytheatre.com review by Ross Peabody
January 12, 2006
Judging purely on appearances, Christine Jorgensen Reveals should be a very simple little performance piece. It seems, after all, quite straightforward. Based on an hour-long recorded interview between Nipsey Russell and Christine Jorgensen from 1958, the entirety of the play's economical 49 minutes is a presentation of that interview. That, of course, is an extraordinary simplification of Bradford Louryk's gem of a performance, and it's also where the "simple" in this piece ends.
Jorgensen herself is something of a fascination. At one time considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, and one of the most publicized, she was a singer, dancer, and cabaret star who regularly toured the U.S., at one point being banned in Boston ("without ever having been there" as she so aptly describes it). She was also formerly known as George, an ex-GI based out of Fort Dix, and the first American operative transsexual.
Christine is witty, charming, and exceedingly loquacious. As for Louryk's performance, witty and charming are the only elements that apply. And they're the only one's that need to, as the entire piece comprises only the actual recording of the original interview, with Louryk, in full fifties stage-siren drag, lip-synching to Jorgensen's words, as collaborator Rob Grace, in prerecorded video form, lip-synchs to Nipsey Russell's voice while interviewing, well, Christine Jorgensen. To recap: A man is performing as a woman who used to be a man in the actual woman's voice and is being interviewed by a black man who is portrayed by a white man on video and speaking in the voice of the original man as recorded on vinyl. Got that? Good, because after about a minute and a half in front of Louryk's performance, that plastic remove disappears like the subtitles in a great foreign film. What you're left with is a compelling autobiographical account of this extraordinary woman's life including, but not limited to, her physical gender transition. The story alone is compelling, but when contextualized in the way that Louryk has done here, the sometimes brutal comparisons that arise between this interview's 1958 and our own time propel the piece from a Hall of Presidents-type academic study in character to something truly engaging and utterly contemporary.
Louryk's Christine is every bit what you may imagine the original to be. He brings us the classic 1950s intelligent socialite performer replete with indulgent eye rolls at Russell's "Let's dance" reaction to her assertion of her interest in men to the touching near-cry when detailing the few times that harsh words have come to her. Grace fills his space just as well, including Russell’s reactions from everything to water pipes banging in the studio to his producer signaling the end of the show off camera, while firmly focusing attention on his interviewee. Both performers bring a constant glint of fun to their performances and are so in their world that they keep the interest level from ever flagging while deftly walking the fine line of going "too big" without ever crossing over it.
Mention must also go to sound designer Rob Kaplowitz, projection designer Kevin French, and director Josh Hecht. All three of these men have spent such a great amount of attention to the slightest details of their work that they have allowed the simple stage set-up of an old time television studio—a hanging microphone and an actor in a chair —to become a fully realized and complete world. Kaplowitz has brought every sound from the recorded interview into this world, from the banging pipes to the tapping of Christine's fingernails on her chair, giving the actors a playground of sounds to reference and play with. French's video design keeps Grace's image from ever becoming a dull one through his use of static, cross frequency imaging, and the occasional vertical hold jump. Hecht has brought all of these elements together with a fine eye to the fact that everything on stage, especially in a piece with as many potential pitfalls as this could have, is active and alive, without ever drawing away from, and always focusing on, the subject of the performance: Louryk/Jorgensen.
Christine Jorgensen Reveals is far from an "evening of theatre", but what it is is a grand example of the impact performance can have in taking a single event in time and memorializing it in the best and strongest way possible, enabling that moment to survive and continue to affect the world in new and different ways around each corner. This is a bold and singular show. It also leaves plenty of time for you afterward to have a drink and talk about it for as long as it inspires you to, which is quite likely going to take some time.