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Hidden: A Gender

by Sam Thielman

But let me tell you, this gender thing is history.
---George H.W. Bush

Near the end of the Coen brothers' slacker masterpiece The Big Lebowski, one of the more pompous characters poses the question of gender identity: "Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the price? Isn't that what makes a man?" His answer comes swiftly and simply: "Sure, man. That and a pair of testicles."

This is my basic reaction to the self-important confusion of Hidden: A Gender, a play that chronicles the unfortunate exploits of a hermaphrodite named Herculine Barbin (Sarah Fischer), and the less extreme case of transsexual Herman Amberstone (Kate Atkinson), a clear analogue to author Kate Bornstein. Barbin, a real nineteenth-century French figure, suffered horribly from her condition and died poor and destitute at a young age in Paris. Amberstone is significantly less sympathetic -- yes, the psychological issues are fairly weighty, but it's not like Bornstein confronts us with any complexities. The play's outlook is mostly limited to admiring Amberstone/Bornstein for being damaged, yet courageous in the face of -- yawn -- adversity with an upsettingly trendy in-your-face narrative style that severely needs to be de-wackied (Amberstone's surgeon enters with a Groucho mask and a dildo in the place of Mr. Marx's traditional cigar).

It's not so much the subject matter I object to as the earnestness with which it is presented (though I could have lived a full and happy life without the penis-carving scene that serves as a visual aid to Amberstone's surgery). The thin patina of humor does little to disguise the petulant moralizing that ultimately drives this play. "She can do whatever she wants!" crows the L.C. (Ghillian Porter) as Amberstone leaves the stage for the last time. Hey, fine with me. Bornstein requires a certain degree of liberalism from the audience with the play's subject matter, but she treats us like the board of trustees at Brigham Young University once she has our attention. Please, go, do whatever you want! Except, perhaps, write more plays.

The Trumpet Vine Theatre Company's production of this play is fine, considering. Atkinson, Fischer, and Porter perform with reckless abandon, and though none of them are fooling anyone when they dress as men, all three seem to be enjoying themselves. Which is nice for them. Vincent Worthington's direction unites the cast, but he certainly seems to have encouraged them to go over the top as often as possible.

I liked this play better when it had rock music and no moral and the title on the program said Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Silly and contrived I can (and frequently do) forgive, but to quote Oscar Wilde, "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

Hidden: A Gender
Hidden: A Gender
Written by Kate Bornstein
Directed by Vincent Worthington
with Kate Atkinson, Sarah Fischer, and Ghillian Porter
Set Design: Jared Davis
Costume Design: Allen Smith
Lighting Design: Ken & Patti Crowley
Sound Design: Jeff Kellum
Running time: 2 hours plus intermission.
A production of Trumpet Vine Theatre Company
3700 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington
April 2-30, Wed. through Sat. @8, with Sunday matinees/Ice Cream Socials on April 10th and April 17th @2:30
Tickets: $20, $18 student discount
Reviewed by Sam Thielman based on 4/1 preview performance
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