May 19, 2019

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A life in two acts

Dragonfly tackles the difficulties of gender with humour

The centrepiece theme of the play is what Rae calls a half-century “gender odyssey,” which culminated in early 2015 with the process of gender transition. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

The centrepiece theme of the play is what Rae calls a half-century “gender odyssey,” which culminated in early 2015 with the process of gender transition. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Lara Rae’s stock in trade has always been comedy.

It has been that way for decades. Rae has had a long career of making people laugh, from dive-y stand-up venues in Toronto to more prestigious places in the halls and writing rooms of the CBC. Rae’s comedy career may have culminated in her creation, with Tom Anniko, of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival in 2002, where she serves as artistic director.

So it is important to spell out that Rae’s play Dragonfly, produced and commissioned by Theatre Projects Manitoba, is not a laugh-fest (although it is sure to have funny moments, because it wouldn’t be a Lara Rae product if it didn’t).

“Humour is a great way to cross a political divide but this thing is much more serious,” says Rae, 55, over coffee in the kitchen of her Sherbrook Street apartment. “It’s about crossing a spiritual divide and also really connecting with people by touching them on the inside.”

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Lara Rae’s stock in trade has always been comedy.

It has been that way for decades. Rae has had a long career of making people laugh, from dive-y stand-up venues in Toronto to more prestigious places in the halls and writing rooms of the CBC. Rae’s comedy career may have culminated in her creation, with Tom Anniko, of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival in 2002, where she serves as artistic director.

So it is important to spell out that Rae’s play Dragonfly, produced and commissioned by Theatre Projects Manitoba, is not a laugh-fest (although it is sure to have funny moments, because it wouldn’t be a Lara Rae product if it didn’t).

"Humour is a great way to cross a political divide but this thing is much more serious," says Rae, 55, over coffee in the kitchen of her Sherbrook Street apartment. "It’s about crossing a spiritual divide and also really connecting with people by touching them on the inside."

The centrepiece theme of the play, which begins tonight at the Rachel Browne Theatre, is what Rae calls a half-century "gender odyssey," which culminated in early 2015 with the process of gender transition. The transition accommodated a change in Rae’s comedy, she acknowledges.

"A number of people have told me my comedy is warmer, funnier, less sharp, less mean," she says. "Because these are things we do when we’re unhappy."

But comedy has its limitations, too, she says, especially at a moment in history when technology has tended to create deep divisions.

"There was this old cartoon: A man goes into the ‘Idea Store’ and it’s pretty empty. And we see the guy behind the counter saying: ‘Sorry, all we have left is irony.’

"Irony has its power." Rae acknowledges. "And this has moments of humour, but it is not comedy, except in the formal definition: It is not a tragedy, so by that definition, it is a comedy."

The show was an outgrowth of a show Rae wrote in 2010 for the Carol Shields Festival of New Works. One Man’s Show, starring Sarah Constible, was "a gender autobiography talking publicly, creatively and artistically to an audience of strangers, about things inside me that people didn’t see on the outside.

Actors Sarah Constible and Eric Blais star as Lara Rae's alternating monologues, with Constible as the masculine self and Blais as her feminine. (Leif Norman photos)</p>

Actors Sarah Constible and Eric Blais star as Lara Rae's alternating monologues, with Constible as the masculine self and Blais as her feminine. (Leif Norman photos)

"From a very early age, I knew there was something weird going on," she says. "I should be a girl, not a boy, I’m more attracted to these kinds of activities, I’m attracted to this kind of energy, I’m attracted to all these kinds of things, even long before puberty."

Rae considers that play "my first foray into Dragonfly," she says. "The idea was to begin to look at the idea of: Does our inside voice have a gender? And the other part of this is the spiritual side: Do souls have a gender?"

The new play again stars Constible, a longtime creative confederate of Rae’s. But it also features actor Eric Blais. Having a cast of two came about from Rae’s conversations with Ardith Boxall, Theatre Projects’ artistic director.

"I would run into Ardith, and there would be talks along the lines of: ‘You did One Man’s Show, maybe it’s time for One Woman’s Show."

Rae began writing the show as two alternating monologues, in which Constible might play her masculine self and Blais her feminine.

"It was basically going to be Lara Rae: A Life in Two Acts," she says."I worked on that for a while. We knew we had something but something was missing.

"Then Ardith came up with the brilliant idea that we’re keeping these people apart and we need to bring them together. And then comes the idea of a conversation."

That notion fit with Rae’s more contemplative approach to material that was raw — Dragonfly includes themes encompassing substance abuse, addiction, suicide and sexual violence — when it came to opening old psychic wounds.

"I didn’t want to do a gender contest," she says. "Part of my growth during this period was being able to love the male-presenting side of myself and the male-presenting times I had. And on the other side, being liberated in a way. Ardith was able to guide me."

She says the play might surprise some of her friends for its embrace of the spiritual. Rae says she comes from a long line of Christian ministers and devoutly attends Quaker meetings.

"People will be taken aback by the references to the gospel that pepper this work," she says. "I was trying to find a way to move away from the medical side of it."

"I like sermonizing... which is a way of transplaining."

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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