Knowing this, one cannot help but form assumptions as to what this play will be about and how it will be constructed. But I can honestly say that my assumptions were completely incorrect.
The show opens with vintage newsreel footage of the actual events of Christen Jorgensens post-operative life.
She arrived back into New York in 1953 to great fame and went on to perform in nightclubs for years.
So before the performance proper has even begun, many of the audiences assumptions are invalidated. One assumes that the first transsexual, famous 50 years ago, would face discrimination and perhaps anger. But Christine Jorgensen was viewed at the time as a singular case. Not a “transsexual”, but as a curiosity. That is the first of several resets that the audience experiences.
Christine enters and takes a seat in a sound recording studio (a very simple but effective set, designed by Wilson Chin). The audience is hushed, waiting for her words. Rob Grace plays the interviewer, seen only on an old fashoned television monitor.
It is when the interview starts that a further reset is required. Though Bradford Louryk is playing Jorgensen, he does not speak. The interview – and, as such, the play – consists entirely of the actual interview done by Miss Jorgensen in 1958. The realization that it is not Louryk speaking gradually ripples through the audience depending on how far back from the speakers one is sitting.
I admit to being disappointed and annoyed at first. But only at first. This theatrical device proves to be necessary, and ultimately, revealing. Jorgensens responses must be heard the context of the period.
Fifty years is a long time by any measure, but in regards to the changes in acceptance of gender identify, it is truly eons. Questions were asked by the interviewer, that in todays world would be considered extremely offensive or obvious. Jorgensen handles the questions directly, honestly and graciously. She responds forthrightly to honest inquiries, embarrassing questions and utter banalities.
And the reason the recordings are so critical is that some of her answers have become clichs since 1958. Jorgensen uses the word ‘fabulous’ more than once in a sincere fashion. There is no way this could be done by a man in drag today. The voice is fascinating to listen to, more naturally male than transsexuals we meet now. There are other subtle touches and pauses that may well seem forced and false if done live.
None of this means that Bradford Louryk doesnt act. He inhabits the role. A six foot tall man, he disappears into the frame of a slight transsexual. His every move, nuance and glance is appropriate. Even when interrupted during the show by coughing, or the sound of a dropped coat, it is Christine Jorgensen that responds to the noise. The pre-recorded interview plays on so Louryk must continue to lip-sink as well as respond to or ignore the interruption.
By the end of the play, one understands the theatrical device is a very real and honest choice. I have no doubt Louyrk (who has played the role since 2005) could say the words, feel the emotions and play Christine Jorgensen with or without the interview soundtrack. But I doubt that the audience would believe the words as much. By playing the role silently, Louryk has given Jorgensens story a voice and a truth, and I, for one, was enthralled.