RIBBON OF LIFE by Steve Julian
The final staged reading of Steve Julian’s RIBBON OF LIFE at Acting Artists Theatre for the Hollywood Fringe Festival exposes secular and religious ideologies; bigotry and prejudice; beginning and ending of life issues; the plight and the joy of being transgendered and tattoos .
Twenty five year old Savannah (Abigail Marks) lives at home with her parents Maggie (Elizabeth Dennehy, a ringer for Glenn Close) and her husband, Savannah’s father Simon (Christopher Murray). Maggie, at the age of 55 is experiencing subtle and not so subtle memory loss. Simon, now a businessman, after serving as a Catholic priest for ten years; brings his religion directly into his now secular life. Toss into the mix a very hip and happening Grannie: Maggie’s mother, Jenny (lovely Gwen Van Dam), who lives with the family. Sharp as a tack, Jenny sees the end of life as an opportunity and has a strong desire to commit suicide on her 80th birthday.
Julian’s clever dialogue and strong characters bring up issues that most of us must face sooner or later, with the exception of the prospect of having your daughter announce that not only is she moving out of the house, but is in love with Esmae (excellent Premstar Santana) formerly known as Preston.
The excellent cast transcends the issue of carrying books in hand to create genuine passion on several fronts. All packed into a single two act play, we encounter not only the issues of the family in question, but these very issues in our own lives. Simon reveals the reason that he left the priesthood and started his family. Savannah and Esmae shock both parents with the announcement that they are a couple, but Simon’s reaction becomes an extraordinary rejection of Esmae because of his own frightened bigotry regarding Esmae’s being a transgender woman. Figuring out who does what and to whom is important to Simon. His prejudice explodes after he researches the issues of transgender on the internet. With limited exposure and deep rooted issues founded in his Catholic faith along with a knee jerk reaction to how any daughter of his could be in love with another ‘woman?’ the shit hits the fan. However, we are certainly convinced that Esmae really IS a woman in almost every way.
|Premstar Santana as Esmae Photo by Rich Clark
Meanwhile, Maggie is beset with concern regarding her own issues that include pregnancy at the age of 55 and a very well thought out dialogue by Julian regarding whether or not she will terminate her pregnancy. It seems to be a miracle in that Simon has been ‘fixed!’ and she is just beginning her bout with menopause.
Not fully developed is Jenny’s very forthright declaration that she fully intends to end her life for many sound reasons. Should Ribbon of Life find a venue and mount a full production, it seems that working on the grandmother’s character would be a good idea. Her arc really should be expanded. Jenny is wise and tolerant, qualities that seem to escape the parents, at least for a while. Time heals.
The Hollywood Fringe Festival is an opportunity for the Los Angeles theatre community to come together and try things. Julian’s play is a grand effort that works, even with scripts in hand. These are well developed and dedicated performances. The polemic takes a scattergun approach to tough issues that are rising to the surface daily in American society. Things are no longer black and white with family decisions and gender issues as they were fifty years ago. This weekend marked the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City. Though the love affair between Savannah and Esmae straddles a gray area that may or may not have much to do with a Gay Life Style, certainly, it should be considered. The fact is that 21st century people, “Millennials” if you will, are making decisions and choosing life styles that older generations may have a difficult time accepting, let alone even finding acceptable definitions for. These two young women are smart, educated, tattooed and dedicated to the ‘person’ that each finds in the other.
We learn new words in the context of the play and some surgical procedures that may make some folks squirm a bit. However, drop dead gorgeous Santana’s portrayal of Esmae transcends stereotypical depictions of male to female transgenders. Instead of being portrayed as defensive or apologetic for her condition, Julian presents her as strong, intelligent and fully aware. We are led to stop worrying about genitals and get a lesson in humanity that makes sense… eventually, even to Simon.
I encourage playwright Julian to shop this project to local theatre companies where it may be fully realized. It’s all exposition, so finding some physical business to bolster the story might be interesting. Director Alexis Jacknow has taken difficult material and with well cast actors has created, even with books in hand, a story worth further exploration. Julian has done his homework and this ensemble piece hits the bulls eye in showcasing his writing and the excellent talent of his cast.
RIBBON OF LIFE by Steve Julian
Hollywood Fringe Festival
Closed June 29, 2014