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A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
It's a good bet that, every time actor Bernard Cubria delivers this monologue in the InViolet Theater Company production at the tiny 4th Street Theater, a large proportion of his audience is simultaneously engrossed and ready to flee.
Cubria paces the narrow ribbon of stage, as though addressing an assembly of medical colleagues, and gives a clinical account of cutting through "various layers of muscle and fasciae," excising the patient's generative organs (or parts thereof), and refashioning flesh to accomplish what may have been the world's first surgical sex reassignment. He speaks directly to the spectators, who are seated down the long sides of the rectangular playing area. Acknowledging the enormity of post-surgical danger and pain, the doctor declares he's nonetheless "confident that in the end we will succeed in fully transforming [the patient's] gender. . ."
With each half of the audience visible to the other half across the slender stage, no playgoer can ignore the uneasiness of his or her fellow audience members. American culture may have reached its transgender moment with the premiere of Caitlin Jenner's reality show (as well as Jeffrey Tambor's Emmy for his role on the Amazon Prime series Transparent and Laverne Cox's portrait on the cover of Time) but, at the 4th Street Theater it's evident that some New Yorkers (ordinarily a blasé lot) are squeamish about the science of sex reassignment.
In Sommerfugl a Danish couple, Einar (Wayne Wilcox) and Grete (Aubyn Philabaum), are living in Paris. They are painting professionally and enjoying a highly social life. Grete, faced with a tight deadline, enlists her husband to substitute for the absent subject of a portrait she's trying to finish. This means that Einar must don a dress and strike a girlish pose. He does so with a show of reluctance but, in the course of the modeling session, his feminine alter ego —Lili— begins to assert herself.
Sommerfugl (that title is the Danish word for butterfly) chronicles Einar's multi-year metamorphosis from a larval stage of cross-dressing to post-operative life as the surgically transformed Lili. Along the way, Einar/Lili discovers that, despite loving Grete, he's attracted to men (represented by Cubria as a fellow named Claude) yet jealous when Grete flirts with others (represented by Cubria as a fellow named Rudolfo).
Elliot's play is inspired by the case history of painter Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener (1882-1931), who became Lili Elbe through a series of surgeries, the first in 1930. Wegener's life is also the basis for David Ebershoff's novel The Danish Girl, published in 2000 with a screen adaptation featuring Eddie Redmayne scheduled for release in late November.
Wegener's actual saga is grim: he died, at age 48, a few weeks after his fourth operation, without metamorphosing as handily as the Einar/Lili of Sommerfugl. Filtered through Elliot's imagination, the Wegener story becomes a hero's odyssey which proceeds quickly from identity confusion through social alienation to romantic reconciliation. The playwright creates some poignant scenes involving Einar's gender dysphoria before the operation and Lili's social disorientation when she leaves the post-operative safety of a German women's clinic. On the whole, though, Sommerfugl is a dramatist's whimsical, often humorous, wish-fulfillment dream of what never could have been.
Stephen Brackett, best known for directing Jonathan Tolin's long-running Off-Broadway comedy Buyer & Cellar ( Curtainup's review ), keeps his four-person cast moving swiftly through Elliot's streamlined script. Wilcox is a formidable presence both as Einar and as Lili; and his virile persona, even when in drag, makes convincing both the character's uneasy adjustment to being a woman and Grete's reluctance to abandon their marriage. But when audiences look back on Sommerfugl, what they will recall is Bernardo Cubria's vivid description of how he and his scalpel made Einar into Lili.