Review: 'The Pink Unicorn' an Intimate Experience in Virtual Theater

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Mar 15, 2021
Stacy Fischer in 'The Punk Unicorn'
Stacy Fischer in 'The Punk Unicorn'  (Source:Courtesy SpeakEasy Stage Company)

Boston's SpeakEasy Stage Company embraces the COVID-era necessity of theater making via streaming, with its production of Elise Forier Edie's play "The Pink Unicorn."

SpeakEasy frames the one-woman show as a video testimony submitted to a "Family and Faith Virtual Summit Series," and start Stacy Fischer brings an off-the-cuff quality to her performance that matches well with the conceit. Fischer plays Trish, a small-town Texas native whose apple cart has been upset - exploded is more like it - with the announcement by her teenager, Jo, that Jo is gender-neutral and will now forsake girls' clothing and use they/them pronouns. As Jo puts it to Trish, "I'm not a girl, Mama. Or, I'm not all girl. I'm a boy, too."

When Jo attempts to start a GAS at her high school, the principal - a man whose desk boasts a prominently placed jar of violet hand cream - shoots the idea down; nor does the principal budge when Trish confronts him about it, instead attempting to pathologize Jo as a troubled teen going wrong in the wake of Trish's husband having died.

At the same time, the town's Presbyterian minister - Trish's own minister, in fact - has come out, in fire-and-brimstone style - against the idea of the church admitting openly LGBTQ people into the ranks of the clergy. Mortified and enraged by the pastor's anti-gay sermon, Trish walks out of church in the middle of the service and, soon enough, into the thick of a controversy that divides the town and her family.

Edie's script radiates humor and warmth, depicting Trish as a far-from-perfect ally who would rather not be in the position she's thrust into. ("I hate diversity!" she recounts having exclaimed at one point - because, of course, uniformity is so much easier.) Though, we never meet Jo - nor Trish's mother or war veteran brother, who struggles with alcoholism and PTSD - Trish's account deftly creates portraits we can identify with.

Director M. Bevan O'Gara and Associate Director Shira Helena Gitlin (who themselves is non-binary) bring a compassionate and informed sensibility. The play's presentation does feel constrained by the static nature of the image, with its unvarying lighting and immobile point of view; that's realistic, of course, and true to the format of the show as a contribution to a "virtual summit," but it makes one yearn harder for a return to live theater, where even in a one-person show the actor can move freely. (This is, of course, an unavoidable limitation; we are all a little sick of Zoom and similar video platforms?)

O'Gara and Gitlin help Fischer find natural-seeming things to fill the virtual space: Trish fiddles with a clementine, breaks a cookie in two, and handles props that are deliberate in their size and solidity, like a large coffee mug and a hardcover blank book. (No slip of a spiral or paper-bound notebook would have had nearly the same sense of presence and physicality.)

Most crucial to the performance is Fischer's ability - even virtually - to communicate a sense of intimacy and empathy, and connect with the viewer. There's one moment when the gesture of an outstretched hand runs up against the format; performer and viewer do not share a common space, of course, and the camera lens distorts the proffered hand in a way that underscores this separation. The gesture feels inadequate, simply because a streaming format isn't conducive to every example of traditional theatrical vocabulary.

Far more important, however, is how effectively the material and the performance communicate the play's message. Trish's story is partly a confession in which she examines her own prejudices, and partly an understated form of stand-up (or, in this case, sit-down) comedy in which unfamiliar situations are examined among the most potent of a skilled comedian's raw materials.

The presentation includes a post-performance roundtable, moderated by Taj M. Smith, in which four prominent transgender/gender-nonconforming individuals from varied walks of life and of varied ages offer their personal experiences and perspectives on a number of issues, chief among them "the impact of language," but also the intersections they occupy - one panel member is biracial, for instance; another speaks about having "a foot in both camps" of the masculine and feminine; still another is a person of faith and seminarian who speaks about how "the cues" of gender they present can signal both masculine and feminine qualities. It's a deep and informative discussion, and worth sticking around for.

"The Pink Unicorn" streams through March 19. For more information, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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