REVIEW: Trustus Theatre’s production of BOY

by Kyle Petersen


Trustus Theatre’s production of BOY, the Anna Ziegler play which has won critical praise for its depiction of a heartbreaking attempt to “decide” a young boy’s sexual identity following a botched circumcision as an infant, is one of those plays that runs the risk of being too tightly-constructed without the emotional intimacy of the performances. Opening and closing with mirroring, highly symbolic set pieces at a Halloween party, the play flashes back and forth between a “present” time in the late 1980s as we learn about the young man known as Adam Turner and how we was raised as a girl, “Samantha,” in the 1960s. Rounding out the cast, there’s bewildered parents, a fussy and overconfident psychologist, and, of course, a love interest for the protagonist.

There’s a certain predictable, although occasionally frustrating, momentum which carries through Adam’s early years as his parents and doctor make ineffectual attempts at strictly socializing him as a girl so as to make sure the operation and hormones “take,” and it’s probably here the play lands its sharpest blows. Much of that comes from how acutely Stann Gwynn portrays Dr. Wendell Barnes, the gender specialist convinced of the absolute power of nurture over nature. Gwynn lends that character both a sense of brilliance inextricably linked to a pompous sense of superiority that often seems to plague status-driven academics and researchers. He’s a delight, a next-gen Freud with a tantalizing intimate relationship with Adam that eventually shatters his clinical remove. Gwynn’s fully-realized performance sits comfortably next to strong performances by Jennifer Little and Harrison Saunders, who play Adam’s parents Trudy and Doug Turner. The desperate drive and sense of helplessness that pervades Little’s performance, as well as the blue-collar distrust that Saunders’ Doug brings to the proceedings feel true to type. While some of their behavior can feel almost too pat and accommodating to the liminal uncertainty surrounding sexual identity, the actors make these characters real and heartbreaking in the tight quarters of Trustus’ Side Door. Doug’s rare, beer-assisted conversation with Adam about how we was raised is a special theatrical moment, and one that depends deeply on the actors to bring to life. 

Despite strong performances, there’s an almost documentary-like impulse towards this gender identity-confused coming-of-age narrative. It’s as if in the desire to craft a teachable moment, Ziegler is a bit too dismissive of the thorny ways that socialization still cuts deep, in unpredictable ways, across every person’s complicated sense of self.

This is perhaps even more apparent in the parallel, “present” time plot involving Adam’s romance with Jenny Lafferty, played by Martha Hearn with a quirky confidence that feels straight out of a mid-2000s indie flick. Hearn clearly sketches out her own take on Jenny, something which doesn’t always seems to jibe with the shallowness of the character in the script or with the expected drama of a young woman in the 1980s discovering puzzling, even betraying secrets about her romantic partner’s past. That’s not to say Hearn doesn’t turn in a solid performance, just that it stretches the believability just a bit. 

Where Trustus’s production shines brightest, though, is in the performance of Patrick Dodds as Adam. Dodds is a young actor who has dazzled in other Trustus productions like Spring Awakening and American Idiot but who here, with his musical showmanship set entirely aside, he proves his formidable acting chops as he jumps through the nervous and kindly self-effacing version of his character to the belligerent and angry 23-year-old still struggling with his tumultuous upbringing. Dodds heightens every gut-wrenching moment that Adam faces, only to disappear, often just seconds later, into the childlike wonder and puzzlement of the young “Samantha,” something he does without the benefit of a costume or makeup change (after all, he’s still “Adam”). His potent performance alone is worth the price of admission, a masterly effort that places him firmly in the top tier of Columbia’s theatre talent.

The set itself is relatively bare, a small, utilizing bright lights and a raggedly zig-zagging stage set up in the round with just a few crucial props to block off the scenes and a desk off to one side with a helpful calendar to denote which moment in time we’ve bounced around to. It’s simple and effective, with subtle flourishes of panache, something also true of Ilene Fins’ direction, moving these actors in careful concert in keeping with the taunt framework of Ziegler’s play. 

Although not without some minor flaws, it feels wrong to undercut the emotional impact of this production. While I have quibbles with the overarching narrative, particularly as its gleans a much happier story than the one that inspired it, tender, nuanced moments abound as the characters work their way through some of the earliest clinical attempts at addressing the uncertainties and hardships of pressing a binary understanding of gender identity and sexual biology onto a messy, complex world. Fins and her troupe of actors nails both the 21st century lens that we have as well as the realities of the situation decades earlier which is both revelatory and necessary. This is the kind of play that you might do well to start off 2017 with.

BOY plays on the Cohn Side Door Stage at Trustus Theatre through January 21. For times and tickets go to

INTERVIEW: Kimi Maeda on her Ephemera Trilogy Opening at Trustus Friday

  Kimi Maeda

This Friday night in a departure from their typical programming, Trustus Theatre opens Kimi Maeda's Ephemera Trilogy, a piece of performance art based in puppetry, but delivering so much more than an adult puppet show. Staged in three parts and using performance art methodologies that include flashlights, sand, shadow art, and more, the performance will take place at the Trustus Side Door Theatre and will run from April 22nd through May 7th on Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and on Sundays at 3. Jasper asked artist Kimi Maeda a few brief questions to better prepare us for receiving her work. Here's what we learned:


Jasper: Jasper has been following your work on the Ephemera project for a while, but for our readers who are just learning about this project can you please summarize what the project is about?

Kimi: In The Ephemera Trilogy, I use shadows and sand to capture the strangeness of living in between two different cultures.  Japanese folktales combine with stories of my mother coming to America, and archival footage from Japanese American relocation camps are intercut with sand drawings of my father as a young boy.  The constant desire for Home and a unified Identity that always seems to be just out of reach.


Jasper: This is a trilogy, right? How is it divided and what should viewers expect from each section?

Kimi: I see The Homecoming as a short shadow puppet overture to the other two pieces, and so I have placed it at the beginning of the evening.  Themes that get introduced will be revisited and elaborated upon later.

The Crane Wife provides several re-readings of a Japanese tale in which a crane transforms into a woman, combining it with my own experience growing up as a Japanese American in a white New England town and my mother’s experience immigrating to the United States.  It utilizes an overhead projector, mounted and hand-held lights, paper cut-outs, fabric collages, three-dimensional objects, and even my own body to cast shadows.

Using sand, shadow, and projection Bend tells the true story of two men incarcerated in a Japanese American relocation camp during World War II: my father, an Asian Art historian who suffered from dementia at the end of his life, and the subject of his research, Isamu Noguchi, a half-Japanese-half-American sculptor.


Jasper:  You created this completed project over six years, is that correct? Was the project fully formed when you began it or did the trilogy aspect present itself to you in the process?

Kimi:  When I began working on these pieces I had no idea of the scope that the entire project would take.  Like a lot of artists, I think there are certain themes that I gravitate toward: Home, trans-cultural identity, and memory.  While The Crane Wife focuses on my mother’s story, Bend focuses on my father.  After I created Bend it seemed natural that the pieces should fit together.  I create work as a way of understanding my place in the world.  As I get older I learn new things and try to incorporate that into my work.

kimi crane wife


Jasper:  And you've had the opportunity to tour this performance, is that correct? Can you tell us a bit about taking the project on the road -- where you've been and what that experience was like?

Kimi:  There are many different themes in Bend and so I think people connect to it in different ways.  When I took it to the International Sonoran Desert Alliance in Ajo, Arizona, as well as the Crossing the Borders: Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival in Putney, Vermont, the topic of immigration was very much on people’s minds.  In Arizona it was powerful not only to be in the desert landscape that my father experienced when he was interned, but also to hear the stories related to the border.

Taking Bend to Arkansas and the former site of one of the internment camps was also an amazing experience.  All that’s left of the camp is a smokestack at the edge of a cotton field.  The only Japanese American in the audience was a man who had been born in the camp.  His family was one of only seven that stayed in Arkansas when the camps were closed, and his was the only family that remained permanently.  It was moving to hear audience members talk about asking their parents why the US government had incarcerated its own citizens.  Before I began my last tour the Mayor of Roanoke, VA wrote in reference to Syrian refugees that “President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”  As more survivors of the camps pass away, I think it becomes more vital than ever that we remember the injustice and we make sure that it never happens again.

I wrote this Facebook post before I started the last tour:

For the past few years my father has been slowly fading away. The illness that began as a wrong turn on a familiar drive home eventually reduced him to the shallow breathing that kept us on edge by his bedside. When he died, he left an emptiness in his wake.

People ask me if it is difficult to be doing a performance about his life so soon after his death. In some ways I think it is actually comforting. I created this show during his illness as a way to cope with everything that I was feeling. Rehearsing in preparation for the tour has been similarly therapeutic. I come into the studio every day and draw my dad over and over again while I listen to recordings of his voice. I am memorizing the shape of his face and the wrinkles on his brow. He feels very present, and that is filling the emptiness.

Bend is about forgetting, but it is also about memory. The New England Chapter of the JACL and I originally intended this Day of Remembrance Tour to commemorate Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 which led to the incarceration of Japanese American families on the West Coast after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Now I think it is actually a fitting memorial for my father, as well.

A friend of mine whose father died recently wrote that “After the initial flurry of burial, obituary, and funeral arrangements passed, I began to think more about my dad from when he was healthy. The years of sickness have faded more, and the memories of my dad through all the years of my childhood and beyond have become stronger. It was like when my dad passed, the years of illness did too, and I was left with the times of what really mattered.” In Bend I express my fear that my father’s memory will be forgotten. However, this tour is not only allowing me to keep his memory present, it is also giving me the opportunity to share his story with so many people.


kimi bend2

Jasper:  Finally, is this it? Is this project completed and are you moving on to something else now? Or will there be another part to Ephemera? If you're moving on, do you know what your next project will be or can you give us some hints to what you're thinking of?

Kimi:  I don’t know that there will be another part to ephemera, but I think the piece as a whole will continue to grow as I get older.  Even returning to The Crane Wife after six years I feel as though I’m in a very different place emotionally and intellectually, and so I’ve added a whole new section at the end to try to address this.


Purchase tickets here.