This production of Rotterdam from the new queer company Under His Lyre features good work by emerging actors in a script that’s pretty bad.
In Rotterdam, playwright John Brittain tells the story of Fiona and Alice. They’re a couple, and Alice is just about to send a coming-out email to her parents when Fiona blurts, “I think I’m meant to be a man.” As Fiona starts filling out their trans identity — and takes a new name, Adrian — Alice struggles with her sense of herself as lesbian.
To be clear: I am very much for more storytelling about trans experience. But the writing in Rotterdam is clumsy.
The characters spend forever in repetitive conversations in which, I think, the circularity — “I’m going to send the email/I’m not going to send the email” — is supposed to be fun, rhythmically. But the device is a dud. So much of Act 1 is about characters not being able to spit things out or get things done that it contains precious little actual plot.
And the text is so on-the-nose, so issue-driven: “If you’re a man, who am I now?”; You want to be treated like a man, right? But what does that even mean?” These questions are worth asking and it feels like Rotterdam has been well researched by its straight, cis playwright, but that research is rarely integrated in a credible, nuanced, human story.
One notable exception springs to mind. While Adrian is coming out as trans to his mom and dad by phone on New Year’s Eve, Alice slips out and meets up with Lelani, a flirtatious young woman from work. The fact that Alice does this is an example of the script’s lack of believability. Sure, people pull dick moves, but like this? But, when we get into the scene in which Lelani lures Alice onto a frozen canal, Rotterdam suddenly acquires something it has lacked to this point: subtext, unstated — and half-understood — intentions. Instantly, albeit briefly, the characters look like real human beings.
There’s more emotional accumulation in Act 2 than there is in Act 1, but overall, I wasn’t engaged by the text. Still, I was into the performances. Playing Adrian’s brother Josh, Kevin TS Vun has a lot of showy moments but, to be fair, Josh provides much of the play’s comic relief, and there are passages in which Vun’s Josh is more affectingly still. Everybody else is consistently excellent at being present. That’s a very good skill to have and one that I notice a lot in productions that feature performers who have been through acting training for film — as this bunch has been. Clara Nowak manages to be giddy as Alice without a note of fakery. Kai Solano Miranda (Adrian) embodies the play’s central emotional weight without ever looking like he’s reaching for it. And Marlee Spicer effortlessly inhabits Lelani’s bravado and vulnerability.
It’s great to encounter this new queer company and these skilled young performers. May they find better material to work with next time.
ROTTERDAM By Jon Brittain. Directed by David C. Jones. On Thursday, June 22. An Under His Lyre production running at the PAL Studio Theatre until July 2. Tickets and info
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