- I'm writing this blog a month and a half after seeing this reading, so I'm just going off notes and what I can recall. Again, I do not rate staged readings.
- Let me start by saying I really appreciate what this play represents. For those who don't know, I have put a lot of time and energy into researching page roles. It could be said that page roles are a primary research area of mine, although pages and breeches characters are just a few examples of modes inside my larger field of transmasculinity in theatre and dance. I wrote a paper on the transmasculinity of Cesario in TWELFTH NIGHT, the thesis of which forms the basis of my concept for a production of the play. To make a long story short, what I do as a historian is look for transmasculine behaviors in the characters of plays, and then I revise, interpret, or adapt that behavior into more clearly identified transmale characters. This will always be revision because there was no language for trans identity in the periods. This is where Duncan Pflaster and DANDELION come in. Not only does the title role self-identify as transmasculine and come out in the text very clearly ("I do not feel at home in my lacey woman's weeds,") but the play is written for an entirely female cast, even though the characters are not all women. Therefore, there are many pages in the play, but only one character with page characteristics. To do this de-emphasizes the twentieth century (and twenty-first) spectator's ability to look at the singular page and think, 'Well, she is obviously a woman. Can't anyone tell?' For contemporary viewers the device of gender difference is primary to the experience of the play, but of course, in the original period, there was no gender difference because all the actors were male. So, Pflaster flips the idea, and it works astonishingly well. Companies such as the Queen's Company do this full-time, but to write this technique into a play about gender differences that get in the way of what characters want is more than the gimmick it sounds like. It makes the audience stop focusing on bodies and start paying attention to the words. The words and actions in this play are so delicious, I'm glad to have the focus replaced on them, where focus should be.
- I want to restate that I appreciate that Pflaster's play is the exact thing I want to actually find: a page that self-IDs as trans! But (you knew there would be a but), there were a couple of things that stand out as a little problematic. Pflaster wrote the play as a direct response to the sensationalism of the trope of the cross-dressing page. He wanted to write a deeper story, a more complex character, than a page who is walking around in a suit and for some reason no one can read her although she is obviously a woman (again this is the 20th century representation of pages: clearly heterosexual women). He deconstructs that as a possibility by casting all women. Already he is re-interpreting the mode of the page role, and he has in front of him a clean slate of opportunity to really deconstruct the archetype of page. However, given that Pflaster is alluding to many pages that came before, he pulls from other sources and retains the concept of a page boy as an inherently dishonest character. In the world of pages, crossdressing is a deceit. Pages are also examples of women as the "absence" of manhood; the bodies of women are not female bodies, but the "lack" of maleness. Pflaster writes this language into the play at several points. I suppose I'm conflicted on this because it's historically accurate to the style of the piece, but Pflaster had the opportunity to reinterpret crossdressing not as a lie, but an ultimate TRUTH, and that is missing from the play, although the concepts of falseness and truth are recurring themes:
"I've lied about a lot of things" - Dandy
"We cannot change the thing we are" - Josser
"speak of nothing" (the idea of nought, nothingness, and lack as woman) - Josser
"debauchery and deviance" - Abbess
"web of lies" - Dandy
- Fate is also a historically accurate theme that recurs. While purposeful to the period, the idea of Fate to me as a (post)modern spectator sounds a lot like essentialism. As a trans spectator as well, I'm left frustrated watching a fellow transman who is trapped by circumstances that are related to a biological body and feels those circumstances are unavoidable due to the essentialist concept that biology = truth. We know it's more complicated than that. I am sure Pflaster knows that. So I, like Dandy, have been stymied by why Fate has anything to do with this tragedy. It appears to me that it is not Fate, the way it is for say, Romeo and Juliet, but essentialism that screws over Dandy.
"Fate is a bitch who turns us on her wheel" - Crispin
"Fate has stymied my life everywhere" - Dandy
"God has a plan for all our lives" - Joan
- I do appreciate the clarity of Dandy as an outside observer of masculinity. I found this particularly accurate to my experience as a transman and I was very receptive to these lines:
"mine eye is keen; I do see more than most" - Dandy
- So then I had these moments, like the ones above, where I was thrilled about this clearly transmasculine page, but only to have them thwarted by the circumstances that make this play a tragedy. Pflaster intentionally used the comic device of the page to insert into a tragedy, exactly because it is opposite the historical tradition. (He also included a jester, named Josser, who was more like Lear's Fool than Feste). I have no qualms with a trans character in a tragedy, but I do worry when the tragic elements are irrevocable from tropes. Dandy is actually trapped by two classic trans tropes: biology and death. Not only is Dandy pregnant, but made pregnant as the result of a rape. There's not much more biologically female than pregnancy, and it is the same giveaway for Shen Te/Shui Ta in GOOD PERSON OF SETZUAN. Also, for the play to be truly tragic, there must be death, but unfortunately the person to die is... the trans character.
- There are some overall worrisome things beyond the trope issue. I worry that the language of rape and misogyny is not ironic or funny just because women say them. I don't think Pflaster means these lines to be humorous; the play is a tragedy, even though there are moments of high comedy through the comic relief of Josser (however, I found Josser tiresome and entirely, eye-rollingly unfunny, although he is supposedly a fan favorite). So, Dandy is a rape survivor and Ratliff calls Dandy a "whore." Crispin says, "my woman is a slut." Victim blaming/slut shaming... I don't know.
- Also, I saw this reading at The Lamb's, a private social club established in 1874. There doesn't seem to be official wording that it is a men's club, but the walls of the place are covered in photos and drawings of men. This staged reading was produced by the Oberon Theatre Ensemble, which has a male artistic director and a male literary manager. The reading was directed by a man. And Pflaster, the playwright, also male. Possibly not the best situation or environment for such a play... if any strong feminist content was present in the text (and there is), it had to trudge through a lot of layers to surface. Casting women didn't seem like a strong enough act when it stands so imbalanced by a masculine environment.
- I was probably one of few queers in the audience, as well. I have a strong feeling the essentialism that stymies the lead "makes sense" to many of the general DANDELION listeners.
- I know I have weighed heavily on things that I find problematic, but I do feel this script has a lot of potential. It is long and complex, and sitting through it entirely as a reading was not as difficult as anticipated. This is due to the fact that Pflaster is very talented and when I called his words delicious earlier, I meant it. I was particularly taken with Cotton Wright as Dandelion. Not only did she relish those delicious words, but she made them and their iambic pentameter sound so natural even in a folding chair in a room full of drawings of men in suits. I know this is a popular play of Pflaster's, and it's even had another reading after the one I'm writing about. I hope the input of a trans spectator has some value as the play continues into more success. I do hope it receives more attention, and I am glad it exists in the world.
- I do not rate readings, but it was a successful night for Duncan Pflaster and the Oberon cast to be sure.