March 22, 2019

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All too human

Even the straightest viewer will relate to playwright's trans journey

Sarah Constible plays one of two aspects of local artist Lara Rae in Dragonfly.

Sarah Constible plays one of two aspects of local artist Lara Rae in Dragonfly.

Theatregoers may need to brace themselves for the Theatre Projects Manitoba production Dragonfly.

It’s a “gender autobiography” of Winnipeg artist Lara Rae, told in poetic dialogue by two actors — played by Eric Blais and Sarah Constible — identically dressed in austere, gender-neutral white and both playing aspects of the same character.

The possibility of artsy pretentiousness is a potential chasm into which the production threatens to topple early. But as directed by Ardith Boxall, the show instead proves to be funny, gritty, tragic and, crucially, relatable.

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Theatregoers may need to brace themselves for the Theatre Projects Manitoba production Dragonfly.

 

It’s a "gender autobiography" of Winnipeg artist Lara Rae, told in poetic dialogue by two actors — played by Eric Blais and Sarah Constible — identically dressed in austere, gender-neutral white and both playing aspects of the same character.

The possibility of artsy pretentiousness is a potential chasm into which the production threatens to topple early. But as directed by Ardith Boxall, the show instead proves to be funny, gritty, tragic and, crucially, relatable.

This is a brave new work. Mostly.

Dragonfly reflects the life of Rae, born Alan Rae in Glasgow, and by the age of two questioning the rightness of her gender. Her early penchant for indoor bookishness yielded the loaded observation that Al was "a boy on the outside, but not an outside boy."

Sarah Constible and Eric Blais play Lara Rae.

Sarah Constible and Eric Blais play Lara Rae.

Indeed. Rae’s abundant childhood peccadilloes transformed into full-blown crises by the time she landed with her family in Toronto, including an arrest for dealing pot while in high school.

Comedy came calling, since Rae’s life supplied no end of raw material. But as her star rose in Toronto’s comedy scene in the 1980s, so too did her penchant for misadventure. In particular, Dragonfly recounts Rae’s rape at the hands of an unnamed Toronto celebrity referred to only as "my rapist." (The assailant employed the Bill Cosby tactic of drugging his victims into unconsciousness.) Rae’s attempt to report the crime to the Toronto police simply facilitated a different kind of attack by officials unwilling to believe a person they all-too-quickly pegged as a lowlife.

The assault occurred at the dawn of the AIDS crisis and that spawns added anxiety for Rae, culminating in a substance-abuse problem that lasted for years, but also paved the way for Rae to finally address the need for gender reassignment at the age of 50.

It ain’t It’s a Wonderful Life. But it is an important slice of cultural history in its description of one person’s triumphant battle with gender dysphoria. It’s a work with the power to evoke empathy from the most straitlaced of straights.

A section in the second act is a bit confusing relating to the business of Rae marrying and fathering a child. It is the one significant moment in the piece when the warts-and-all confessional drifts into a narrative fog. One assumes the details were kept vague in deference to the privacy of Rae’s ex-wife and daughter, but it may also serve to let the playwright off the hook. Tangled with a story that may or may not be tangential about a woman’s suicide... it’s a problem area.

But it’s not the issue with the two-person cast. Given a mostly bare theatre stage and minimal set fixtures, the possibility exists for Sprockets-level affectation. But even with a script that calls on quicksilver changes in characters, Constible and Blais find and deliver the poignant humanity of it all.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

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

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