by Leta Tremblay · August 19, 2014
Laura Abbott’s I Am Not I is named for a poem, “Yo no soy yo”, written by Juan Ramón Jiménez:
“I am not I.
I am this one:
The one who walks by my side without me seeing.”
The duality presented in this poetry translates beautifully to the scene that Abbott presents of a young person, Jane (Robyn Unger), about to celebrate her quinceañera, or “transition into womanhood”, and coming to the realization that she is actually a boy. This struggle for identity is echoed in all of the characters on stage from Jane’s Mexican father desperately trying to maintain his role as provider to her actress mother’s desire to live in the past to her girlfriend’s attempt to move beyond tenuous beginnings.
Abbott and co-director Jordan Reiff collaborate with choreographer Kendra Slack to create a charming movement score for dancer Claire Cuny to inhabit as perhaps “the one who walks by my side without seeing.” Accompanied by the melodious live strumming of guitarist Sam Lowenstein, Cuny’s appearance adds a visual and otherworldly element to the challenges that Jane faces. Sometimes she seems to be a kind and supportive friend while at others she appears to manipulate Jane’s actions by offering definitive suggestions. This device is effective and Cuny’s movement is mesmerizing to watch.
The other most effective performance onstage though was that of Morgan Lavenstein playing Dawn, the top student who would give anything to leave the trailer park for the Ivy League. Dawn, the only out lesbian at school who survives by remaining constantly on the defensive. Dawn, who feels trapped by her loyalty to her alcoholic mother. Laverstein compellingly portrays all of these aspects of Dawn’s life with honesty, vulnerability, and tenacity. It was especially heartbreaking to witness Dawn’s inability to accept Jane’s truth about his gender identity when it is shared, so caught up is she in her own trauma.
Kudos should also be given to Unger for her grounded and convincingly simple depiction of Jane navigating the dense terrain of selfhood. She provides a solid base for a very timely and necessary story about being transgender to be explored.
The creative team works diligently within the limitations of a FringeNYC production to present the many scenes of the play in all of their contrasting locations with clarity. Yet it is the simplest moments, Jane sitting uncomfortably in her quinceañera dress or Dawn throwing away her college applications that are most captivating to watch. These moments are the perfect example of the power of theater to transform space with the smallest of suggestions. The complicated and sensitive nature of the subject matter demands a paired down world to reside within.
This play has so much heart and centers on vitally important themes given the current world climate. It also strives to explore the universality of changing identities across culture, age, and experience; issues that many of us can relate to on our own lives on a daily basis. Who hasn’t, in some way, been challenged by who they are? Or are no longer?