by Mary Notari · May 22, 2015
Theater, at its best, is a practice in empathy. It is with this in mind that I went into Tuesdays at Tesco's, an English language adaptation of Le Mardis a Monoprix by Emmanuel Darley, playing at 59E59 as part of the 2015 Brits Off Broadway festival.
The accomplished British actor Simon Callow, plays Pauline. Every Tuesday, she does the housekeeping for her recently widowed father, including shopping with him at the UK's answer to Wal-Mart, Tesco. Pauline longs desperately for his love and acceptance, but he can still only see her as his son, Paul. Although she never identifies herself as such in so many words, Pauline would be considered "transgender" in the parlance of our times. Her elderly father cannot and will not accept his daughter as she is and Pauline suffers his cruelty with as much grace and humor as she can manage, in addition to suffering the daily indignities that come with not "passing" in a transphobic culture.
Neither the actor nor director nor playwright identify as trans. There is nothing wrong with that necessarily: we all employ the tools of theater to bring to life stories of people outside our own experiences. This happens to be an imagined story about a transgender person of a certain age. But it's still a tricky thing: portraying a trans character when one is not trans. I am not qualified to get into that here, but playwright MJ Kaufman writes thoughtfully on the subject over at Howlround.
Excited to see a well-reviewed show about a trans person featuring a non-trans actor, I was really hoping Tesco's would be something I could recommend. In this venue, the play certainly helps increase trans visibility to an audience that might not otherwise be exposed to such stories. While a laudable goal, that in and of itself is not enough. This play joins a growing number of depictions of, by, and for trans folks on stage––where making oneself visible can mean so much more than a bad review. As such, it should be judged within the standards of that community of works and, despite a masterful and nuanced performance by Callow, Tesco's does not hold up for a couple of reasons.
It's not all bad, of course. The entirety of the play is presented as a lyrical, non-linear monologue directed at the audience. Pauline embodies her father, as well as a peppering of neighborhood folk, as she takes us through a day in the life. Or perhaps it is an amalgam of several days. It's hard to tell. The text rises, falls, and repeats like a song. Sometimes Pauline seems to lose where she is and returns to the same chorus over and over again: "I am me myself. Now and forever more." It is foreboding and beautiful and a wonderful translation job by Matthew Hurt and Sarah Vermande.
The stage design is equally beautiful. A glowing circle surrounds the stage––as if this is a single moment in time folding in on itself for forever. An old chair stands in for Andy who exists only in Pauline's cranky and at times painfully vulnerable impressions of him. At a piano sits the musician and composer, Conor Mitchell, with his back to us. He carries Pauline through her story with various musical motifs, as if half recollected from old records. It's an effective device.
But a few key elements falter. Firstly: in the background, a frilly pink child-sized dress hangs beside a star-studded tree branch (perhaps a broken family tree?). In front of that, a hanging rectangle of plastic reflects Pauline and the first few rows of the audience in an ominously ghostly way. It's beautiful, but I kept waiting for the moment in the story where the connection to the dress would be made clear and assuage my fear that the play would resort to tired gender tropes. This moment did not come and my fears were not assuaged.
The second and most egregious is the ending. While Callow and Mitchell craft a beautiful stage play, the entire crux of the action––namely, the cruelty we can inflict on the ones we love and the desperate longing for acceptance––is completely undermined by a finale that comes out of the blue. I don't want to give too much away, but, in the end, the play perpetuates a negative stereotype and lands us square in the territory of empathy's insidious cousin, sympathy. To my mind, empathy is transformative and compels us to act. Sympathy, on the other hand, only demands that we feel bad for a bit while we remain within our own bubble. The ending of Tesco's feels much more like the later whereas the rest of the play seemed to be going for the former, and succeeding in places.
Perhaps it is a generational issue. Pauline was born in 1950's or 60's, as far as I can tell, and the challenges faced by the queer and trans community of that era are of a different quality than what we face today. We are getting a lot better as a society but trans women in particular are still targets of violence. The eighth murder of a trans woman in 2015 happened this week.
Such violence is quite easy to point out and it still happens far too often and is reported on far too little. What's harder to pinpoint is when these same stories are coopted by well-meaning artists and by extension the voices of those living that violence are marginalized. I am not sure Tuesdays at Tesco's avoids such marginalization. It is successful in making audience feel something and it's certainly not the worst introduction to a trans character ever. Hopefully, Callow's moving performance will at least inspire audiences to learn more and seek out more theater outside their comfort zones.