Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's recent review of Jagged Little Pill
Sylvan Oswald's Pony, now onstage at Cutting Ball Theater, directed by Kieran Beccia, raised many questions for me: Will these characters ever find what they are looking for, whether it's love, identity, or a place to call home? And why are they looking here, in this nameless, shapeless town that seems filled with nothing but trouble?
Pony, played by Fenner Frank Merlick, is a trans man, evidently recently released from prison for some unspoken crime (perhaps merely being himself), who has come to town seeking a gentle re-entry into the world. But he discovers–as he likely expected–that the world isn't quite ready for him. Sadly, no one in town seems happy with their lot in life. Marie (Julie Kuwabara) is obsessed with a long ago murder that took place in town, replaying it in her mind, trying to imagine how it went down. Stell (Lauren Dunagan) is a con artist/newsstand proprietor who sucks young Heath (Kian Johnson) into her orbit, promising to help him find the "father figure" (if not his actual father) he needs in his life, since he is transitioning from female to male. (Though it beggars reason as to why he would give several hundred dollars to a newsstand clerk to serve as a private investigator, when he has to sleep in the open air.) Pony turns for help to Dr. Cav (AJ Davenport), a social worker of sorts who is conducting a study about "can people change," but is herself having trouble assimilating in a society that still harshly judges butch lesbians like herself.
It's fitting that Pony is playing at the Cutting Ball, located in the heart of the Tenderloin's Transgender District, the only officially recognized district of its kind in the world, for each of the characters is gender non-conforming in one way or another. But despite some strong performances, especially from Merlick, who carries themself with an easy physicality and has a gentle but unwavering glare that lets you know Pony is not about to let himself be messed with, Pony fails to coalesce into anything resembling true drama. There is a vague theme of investigation running through the play (Marie's obsession with the murder, Heath's search for a father, Pony's attempt to find a place to call home, and each character's search for a genuine identity), but it functions more like a sprouting seedling than anything that actually bears fruit. At one point, Cav asks, "What kind of story is this?" At the end of the evening, that was my big question, also.
But perhaps the most important question is, why don't trans characters (the few that make it into contemporary drama, that is) ever seem to get to feel joy? It's only been in the last couple of decades or so that queer characters have become able to be something other than tortured souls or victims of violence or, at best, bitchy best friends with snappy comebacks, and it seems high time for theatre to embrace the joy trans people feel when allowed to fully express their gender identity.
Pony runs through November 13, 2022, at Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $10-$90. For tickets and information, please call 415-525-1205 or visit cuttingball.com.