Cassandra Boice’s Gender Tree sparks a conversation many here in Portland want to have.
Imagine descending a small flight of stairs into a hallway partially illuminated by quivering fluorescent lights. Alright, they aren’t actually quivering – just go with it anyway. In the distance you can make out some of what looks like a dated, unpigmented bathroom. Even closer, you can hear the uproar of laughter coupled with makings of fresh conversation. Following the sound, you make your way further in to find a dimly lit room on your left.
What’s this – an underground cocktail lounge? Immediately, I’m surprised at how much this scene reminds me of an improved (and slightly more expensive) version of the Michigan-basement parties I knew in my youth. The only tangible nostalgia I’m missing now is a red Solo cup. I head back upstairs here at the Post5 Theater in Southeast Portland to be seated for Gender Tree, one of the Fertile Ground Festival’s world premiere productions.
Patiently awaiting the cast, I’m met with deja vu. I’m looking at a familiar set: a room messily splayed with clothing and other personal effects. This plays nicely on the house-party vibe I’ve been getting and I’m all the more intrigued. Everyone attending this show seems to be here hoping to gain a crisp perspective on what can easily come across as a tired pairing: Gender & Fashion.
As the lights dim and the intro video starts up, I’m wondering how this performance will differ from discussions I’ve read, watched and listened to. It’s not just me- we as human beings can sometimes be difficult to inspire anymore. We’ve developed swiftly into creatures of rapid technological advancements, expansive educational mediums and more importantly, as social network developers for the purpose of sharing this information with the world. With so much content readily available to inform us, it takes these skilled theater performances to memorably strike us.
On screen, Portland locals are being briefly interviewed and the questions are directed at the theater audience as well. “How does Portland seem to feel about gender?” The majority response is that this city has built itself to readily accept interchangeable gender traits/roles. This is in fact what we are experiencing now and what I’m assuming Portland specifically has been for years. After all, Portland’s general acceptance of self is part of what brought me to Oregon in the first place.
Cassandra Boice constructed Gender Tree starting with the topic of fashion as its foundation and from there, allowed it to sprawl and reach many extraordinary destinations: role-playing, dominance struggle, sexual orientation, childbearing/rearing, feminism, transgenderism and polyamory contrasted by monogamy.
The first half of the show is spent recycling actors: Philip J. Berns & Rebecca Ridgeour. The two are brilliant together as we witness them evolve from a couple experimenting with role-playing to a pair of friends preparing to reveal a gender reassignment. The transition is seamless.
Although the subject matter does hit the core at points with it’s seriousness, Berns and Rigeour bring the necessary humor to each section. It is in these moments that I understand Boice’s mentioning that this play “started as a clown show” for her. The comedy of the script and vibrancy of the cast is more than enough to keep the audience focused on the message.
During the intermission I recall the shady bathroom I saw upon entering. I found it interesting that originally what I saw was simply a bathroom and not one delegated to either men or women. When I looked further there was a separate women’s restroom donning a pepto-pink coating throughout. I laughed. It’s silly to me that things like color are associated with gender at all – and more, that I even noticed it. I guess these thoughts are just the result of the waning stereotype leftovers from the generation I grew up in. With the way places like Portland are already progressing, I believe that this stigmatized deviation from the status quo will eventually disintegrate in all arenas.
In the second act, the performers turn to their own foreign language as they begin acting out different species of male and female animals. This adds to the “clown show” theme we saw in the first half. The pair eventually arrives again in their human form. Shivering in their nude suits, they begin referencing fashion magazines for clues on how to clothe/warm themselves. This quickly turns into a live performance of one of those “Evolution of Fashion” videos we’ve seen playing on YouTube a thousand times. Regardless, the performance doesn’t bore and instead contributes it’s own hilarious version.
In the end, the actors find themselves in separate but simultaneous monologues as they speak to us as man and woman. I sense that these are their personal experiences with gender stereotypes. I wonder if the actors have even been allowed to write this piece together, as there is too much conviction in their performance for these not to be their individual journeys.
I admit, initially I wasn’t sure what I would take from Gender Tree – but maybe it’s simply the reminder that these are subjects being talked about in places like theater. It may just take theater performances like this to keep these conversations going until society doesn’t feel that they are necessary anymore. However great the lesson, it remains true that sometimes all we need is to venture outside of our super-caves of information in order to witness and maybe even learn something through organic means.
FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL 2015 ended Feb 1ST, Gender Tree has been extended until February 14th and can be seen at Post5 Theatre u.