Writer: Bixby Elliot
Director: Stephen Brackett
Reviewer: Jamie Rosler
Transgender experiences are on the American public’s mind in a way they’ve never been before, and it’s a safe bet that a New York City-based theatre audience in 2015 is sympathetic to the cause. Whether or not that was a consideration in the staging of Bixby Elliot’s Sommerfugl is unknown, but it certainly serves the production well.
Preaching to the choir is one sure way to create a successful production, but to believe that that was the sole intention of its creators is a cynicism too deep for even this jaded New Yorker. While there is no forthright challenge to win anyone over, to change the hearts and minds of so-called traditionalists, the story told is one of such purity of love and human compassion, that even the most hardened conservatives, unless truly heartless, will leave the theatre having been emotionally affected by the story of Einar and Grete Wegener, and Lili Elbe.
Lili Elbe—played by Wayne Wilcox—was born Einar Wegener, and is considered the first person to undergo gender reassignment, or gender confirming, surgery. Einar is a talented Danish artist married to and in love with Grete, poignantly portrayed by Aubyn Philabaum. In this fictionalized version of their true story, Lili first comes into being when Grete’s model Anna has cancelled for a third session in a row, and so Einar dons the dress to sit for a painting. It’s as though he’s never considered himself a woman until he wears a dress, which seems simplistic and inaccurate, but serves the plot.
At first, Grete loves the idea of Lili being a character that Einar plays when they go out dancing. It’s fun for her to watch their friend Claude be smitten by “Einar’s sister,” and to see the joy and vivacity that Lili brings to their world. The revelation that Einar wants to be Lili even when they are home alone, that Lili is starting to feel like her own person, without whose expression Einar knows no happiness, is accepted rather easily by Grete. By this telling of their story, no one has ever been more willing to sacrifice the known for the unknown like Grete Wegener, all for the love of another. The evolution of their relationship is the real narrative, while the transformation of Einar to Lili is almost a subplot.
Without going into the trauma it must have caused, there is talk of shock therapy and of doctors who refuse to understand. Lili eventually spends three months at a hospital in Germany, where she undergoes three separate procedures, and is almost paralyzed by the fear of returning to Denmark, even with her brand new passport and documentation from the Danish government. This fear is unfounded. While it seems sadistic to wish the play showed more overt struggle, it also seems naïve to present a history in which Lili’s tallest hurdle is a front-page newspaper story about the male-artist-turned-woman, and occasional sidelong glances on the streets of Copenhagen. Her closest friends remain her biggest supporters, and her most difficult moments stem from the internal rather than the external, though perhaps that is a beautiful optimism we could all embrace.
Sommerfugl is Danish for butterfly, the ever-effective symbol of metamorphosis from one being to another. Elliot does a masterful job writing in this cliché without being trite or predictable. It is not overdone, and is presented in such a moving way between Grete and Lili, toward the end of the play, that it serves only to drive home the heart and love at the center of this telling.
Ideally, this play is visited by an audience that is not already sensitive to or involved with the transgender community, who will be moved to understand the humanity in all of us. Regardless of your own experiences, and the debatable naïveté of the script, this tender production will leave your heart, mind, and eyes open.
Runs until 10 October 2015