Theater & dance

Stage REview

In Company One’s ‘The T Party,’ the transgender experience unfolds, in shadow and light

From left: Kadahj Bennett, Alex Jacobs, Alyssandra Tay-lor, Mal Malme (panda suit), and Matt Dray in “The T Party.”

Paul Fox

From left: Kadahj Bennett, Alex Jacobs, Alyssandra Tay-lor, Mal Malme (panda suit), and Matt Dray in “The T Party.”

Questions of gender identity rose to the foreground of public discourse amid the recent controversy over North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill,’’ spotlighting the growing refusal by the transgender community to remain silent or invisible.

Now comes Natsu Onoda Power’s contribution to that discourse — the New England premiere of “The T Party,’’ at Company One Theatre — and it is as bracingly original and head-spinning as you might expect from this singular playwright-director.

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Power has devised a whirling theatrical language all her own, one that is playful, idiosyncratic, and, though self-indulgent at times, often bursting with energy, heart, and ideas. Directed by Power at the Roberts Studio Theatre, “The T Party’’ presents a series of vignettes that dramatize what the playwright calls “gender transformation,’’ including the experiences of transgender people in a culture that too often treats them as the ultimate outsiders. Rather than pretend that any one story can capture the entire spectrum of gender and sexual identity, Power’s multi-angled approach results in an expansive picture that includes people who identify as non-binary.

Structurally, the outward trappings of spontaneity in “The T Party’’ may conceal the precision of Power’s craft. There’s a cumulative power to the piece that doesn’t fully sink in until you’re on your way home after the performance. (The effect was similar with Power’s manga-inspired “Astro Boy and the God of Comics,’’ which she directed two summers ago at Company One in a production that combined live action, puppetry, animation, video, and charcoal drawings to fashion a resonant sci-fi parable about the allure and the perils of technology in the nuclear age).

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A freewheeling tone is set from the start of “The T Party,’’ which kicks off with a mid-1990s prom scene, complete with a mirrored disco ball high above the stage-turned-dance-floor, with the audience seated on either side. Spectators dance along with Power’s ensemble of eight: Kadahj Bennett (excellent), David J. Castillo, Matthew Dray, Alex Jacobs, Mal Malme, Jade Sylvan, Alyssandra Taylor, and Gigi Watson (a standout).

That opening prom scene goes on far too long but does serve the purpose of introducing us to the central characters whose attempts at self-expression — sometimes buoyantly self-confident, sometimes poignantly tentative — will form the spine of “The T Party’’ from then on.

In one vignette that conveys a sense both of communion and isolation, a man chats with a female friend online, proudly showing her pictures of himself in dresses while saying he wishes he could be himself in public, not just in private. In another, an actor rapidly cycles through multiple personae in a drag routine set to Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).’’

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There’s a trenchant bit titled “Non-Binary Sex Education for Kids,’’ and an uproarious scene illustrating the joyfully homosexual activities of bottlenose dolphins. Two female college students embark on a torrid fling, but their relationship ebbs after they are targeted with an epithet on a dorm room door. A glamorous, serenely content transgender woman working as an escort talks about her life to a married father of three who is an occasional cross-dresser, and who is intensely curious about her life.

Based on Power’s conversations with friends and members of the transgender community in Washington, D.C., “The T Party’’ premiered three years ago at the Forum Theatre in Silver Spring, Md. Power has added some topical updates, including last month’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the transgender public accommodations bill signed into law by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker this month.

Among Power’s strengths as a writer and director are the ways she finds to surprise you. In perhaps the most potent scene in “The T Party,’’ a performance of the famous song “One,’’ from “A Chorus Line,’’ is wrapped around descriptions of a phalloplasty, punctuated by a recitation of harrowing statistics about the rates at which transgender people experience homelessness, fall victim to homicide, or attempt suicide.

There are plenty of reminders of that kind of pain and the need to stop it, but you walk away from this play realizing that the word “party’’ is not idly affixed to Power’s title. “The T Party’’ is infused with an embracing warmth that insists on the right of all people not just to live, but to live happily.

THE T PARTY

Created and directed by Natsu Onoda Power. Presented by Company One Theatre at Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Aug. 13. Tickets $25-$38, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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