Sexual identity is not a choice. We are born into bodies that are male or female or, occasionally, both. We are sexually attracted to other human beings that are male or female or both, regardless of our external characteristics. Therein lies a conundrum. What if our externals do not match our internals? What if we are born into a boy’s body but feel like a girl, or vice versa? That is tougher than same sex attraction and is the core situation in playwright Jon Brittain’s extraordinarily well-crafted play, Rotterdam, which received the Olivier Award in 2017 for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre.
Alice (Miranda Wynne) and Fiona (Ashley Romans) are lesbian lovers living in the international port city of Rotterdam. Alice works at a shipping company and Fiona is a schoolteacher. Fiona’s brother Josh (Ryan Brophy), Alice’s former lover, lives with them. It is a bit awkward, since Josh loves them both in different ways. He carries a hopeless internal flame for Alice, but can never act on it. Completing the quartet, Lelani (Audrey Cain), a slim, young, beautiful Dutch girl in her nubile twenties, has her eyes set on Alice.
As the play opens, Alice is just proofing a letter to her parents outing herself as gay. She has a hard time of it. She has no confusion about her identity, but fears the response such a letter may provoke in her folks, a not uncommon situation in gay life. But then Fiona throws a curve ball down and away. She reveals to Alice that she has always felt she is a boy. No, beyond that…she knows she is a man and wants to transition and be called Adrian. To crib from Shakespeare, that “is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage,” and is really not a spoiler and gives nothing away. The action is in the emotional cauldron of a situation that is fraught with laughs and tension, joy and sorrow.
The cast is extraordinary, playing with the unhesitating, spontaneous speed of life. Ms. Wynne is poignant in her vulnerability as she steps through the landmines of her partner’s hitherto unexpressed desire. Ms. Romans navigates the changes her character must make with powerful, affecting passion. Both friend and sufferer, Mr. Brophy is the linchpin of the piece, his reactions beyond thought. And Ms. Cain brings considerable comic relief to the play with her dry Dutch accent and charming effervescence.
Director Michael A. Shepperd keeps the pace brisk and the action nuanced. Rotterdam boasts a first class production team. The scenic and lighting design by Jeff McLaughlin is extraordinarily clever with set pieces that are moved quickly and surely by the cast, who, to signal that they are now stage hands, give a little hop when they finish. Upstage, an unmistakeable replica of Rotterdam’s Erasmus Bridge nails down place. And there are several other scenic surprises. As always with Christopher Moscatiello, the sound design is superb. Dutch techno-pop at opening and between scenes is delightfully assaultive. Costume design by Naila Aladdin Sanders supports character, place and action. The cast’s British and Dutch accents are totally authentic to my ear. Kudos to dialect coach Tuffet Schmelzl.
Rotterdam is a West Coast Premiere presented by Skylight Theatre Company & Hartshorn-Hook Productions, and produced by Gary Grossman, Tony Abatemarco, and Andrew Carlberg in Association with Providence Entertainment, Ltd.
Rotterdam is a polished, brilliant, not to be missed piece of theatre. It is lucky for audiences that Rotterdam’s run is extended through January 28 at Skylight Theatre, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles.