The Dutch port city of Rotterdam – which provides both name and setting for the excellent Jon Brittain play now running at the Skylight Theatre Company – is not a place where people stay. Ships come in and ships go out, but none of them remain for long.
Contrary to this observation, the two characters at the center of this Olivier-winning comedy have been there for seven years.
Alice and Fiona, a pair of expatriate Englishwomen, are lovers who have put off returning to Britain so that Alice can avoid coming out to her parents. Now, finally, on New Year’s Eve, Alice has composed an email revealing to them her long-kept secret; but just as she’s about to send it, Fiona decides to make a coming-out of her own. She announces that she has always identified as a man, and that she wants to start living as one.
You might expect such a revelation to come as the culmination to a lengthy exploration of gender and identity – but in “Rotterdam,” it’s just the beginning.
Fiona’s moment of truth provides a jumping off point for Brittain’s script, which proceeds to navigate its characters through a tangle of obstacles and repercussions. To begin with, there are the practical considerations of transitioning – physical presentation, decisions about surgery, picking a new name (the choice is “Adrian”). Overwhelming as these may be, they are relatively straightforward matters; less so is the effect it has on Alice – who, after spending a lifetime working up the courage to embrace her identity as a lesbian is suddenly faced with the fact that the woman she loves is no longer a woman.
We’ve often seen stories about the effects of gender transition in pairings between “straights,” but here we get the perspective of a same-sex couple. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the core issue is not much different – when your sexual identity is defined by the gender to which you are attracted, what happens when the person you love changes theirs?
As Brittain’s play makes clear, it’s a complex question made even more difficult to answer when it is woven into a web of relationships with siblings, ex-lovers, parents, and that sexy young thing from the office.
In Skylight’s crisp, entertaining production of this deceptively funny Olivier-winner, director Michael A. Shepperd and his superb young cast display a shrewd understanding of the emotional whirlwind that underpins its provocative sit-com premise. As they amuse us with sparkling banter and comedic complications, they chart the treacherous territory of personal gender politics with a disarming lightness of touch – presenting a balanced examination of this multi-faceted situation even as they invite us to laugh at it.
Much of the show’s weight rests on the shoulders of Ashley Romans and Miranda Wynne – as Fiona and Alice, respectively – and both give star performances. Romans strikes an impressive balance between confidence and vulnerability, never leaving us in doubt of her character’s innate masculinity – or generosity of spirit – as she transforms. In portraying the conflict between unconditional support for her partner and concern for her own needs, Wynne may have the bigger challenge; she succeeds brilliantly, creating an eminently likeable character and illuminating her dilemma with humanity. Together, they make an endearing, believable, and heart-rending couple.
The other half of this four-person cast are every bit as stellar. As Josh, Ryan Brophy performs the potentially thankless task of representing the straight/white/cis-gender/male ally viewpoint with easy-going, self-deprecatory charm; and Audrey Cain is sly and utterly delicious as Lelani, Alice’s free-spirited co-worker, bringing layers of unexpected depth to a role which – for a less skillful actress – might have played merely as a goofy caricature.
At the helm, Shepperd steers his actors through the physical space as deftly as he does through the emotional. Cleverly-choreographed scene changes, accompanied by brash and blaring Euro hip-hop, move the action from place to place across a boldly stylized cityscape representing the play’s eponymous locale. A neon-flavored mélange of modernist, art deco, and brutalist influences designed by Jeff McLaughlin, this visually stunning set serves to make the city itself – a place of transition, through which people only pass on their way to someplace else — an omnipresent metaphor for change.
That, of course, is what “Rotterdam” is really all about.
Though it addresses the subject through the lens of trans and lesbian experience, Brittain’s brilliant play is truly universal in its scope. When it opens, Fiona and Alice are deeply bonded and sure of each other; in a single moment, everything changes. The ground upon which their relationship has been built has shifted, and it is by no means certain that either of them will be able to make the adaptations necessary for it to survive.
Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship – straight, gay, trans, or otherwise – will certainly recognize that situation.
To put it metaphorically, we’ve all been to Rotterdam.
“Rotterdam” by Jon Brittain has been extended through January 28 and plays at 8:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays; 2:00pm on Sundays; and 8:00pm on Mondays. Skylight Theatre is located at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave, LA, 90027. Tickets are $15 – $41. Reservations: 213-761-7061 or or 866-811-4111. Online at http://SkylightTix.com