Monday, April 9, 2018

MUST SEE: Mermaid Hour: Remixed at Mixed Blood

When you think of mermaids, what comes to mind? 


Photo by Rich Ryan

Many of us immediately jump to thoughts of Disney's Ariel a la The Little Mermaid. Others might harken to darker implications, such as the cursed mermaids of West African lore.

What I recently learned is that mermaid can also be a term used to describe genderqueer individuals as a way of identifying their blended identities. Like a mythical mermaid is not fully made for land or sea, mermaid can help visualize a queer person who does not identify as CIS gender and as such lives "between worlds." There's more about this here at the website for the U.K.'s Mermaids organization, which has advocated for awareness of and safe spaces for queer children over the last 20 years, but I learned it from the lovely new show Mermaid Hour: Remixed at Mixed Blood Theater, one of my must-see shows of 2018.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Mermaid Hour tells the story of Vi, a young Latinx trans woman, and her parents and friends as they navigate her transition and she starts to hit puberty. I want to emphasize up front that refreshingly, this is not a coming out story (although of course those are important too): Vi's gender identity is always known to her, her parents, and her friends, and there is no question of who she is. Instead this play focuses on the ways that Vi's identity is complicated by the world around her. Even if she knows exactly who she is, the rest of the world still isn't sure how to react to or engage with her, and it is the confusion of others that makes her life (and especially her parents' lives) complicated. Vi's parents Pilar and Bird are accepting and amazing, and they try desperately to understand what she needs and how to help - but they fail, and often. The trouble is that instead of "just parenting," they are in transition too: from the grief of navigating losing a son but gaining a daughter; from explaining to friends and colleagues who and what their daughter is and how she should be seen; from raising a child to raising a teenager who is racing towards sexuality in a body that is fully unprepared for it, literally; and from the evolution of their marriage as Vi gets older and their engagement with her and each other necessarily changes.

Photo by Rich Ryan

I want to focus on this conversation about Vi's parents because to me that is the most remarkable part of this show. Vi's story is centered to be sure, and we hear her discuss her feelings with her friend Jacob, her comforting online merperson Crux, and with her own parents. I don't want to discredit the importance of that perspective and that Vi has her own agency: it's crucial to her safety and happiness, and it's a gift that too few people (and characters) get. But the beautiful, gentle, subtle way that Mermaid Hour discusses the nuances around transition (especially for young kids) is really remarkable, and much of this is conducted through Vi's parents. Here's a great example: one of the most devastating side effects of the discrimination towards trans people is their lack of adequate health care - both in it being paid for by insurance, and in having little proven real medical understanding of what trans bodies actually need to thrive. There is so little scientific information about the prolonged effect of sustained hormone therapy, especially on pubescent bodies, that it makes navigating the whole process of transitioning - such as considering regular hormone shots for decades at a time - terrifying for families. Even the most accepting parents have doubts, fears and concerns, and those are real emotions that need to be discussed (aside: for a fabulous discussion of this issue of long-term hormone use for trans people, click here to listen to this excellent podcast - I listened before attending this show and I learned SO. MUCH.). Through great writing and a pair of terrific performances, Pilar and Bird are allowed to express all of their feelings about this process - their grief, their fear, their doubt, their love, their confusion - and it gives such a complex, honest look at this experience that was so refreshing and instructive for me.

Photo by Rich Ryan

And speaking of performances, this show is filled with some really great ones. Thallis Santesteban is gripping as Vi's mother Pilar. She displays such deep emotion that you can't help but be moved, especially towards the end of the show. Michael Hanna plays Bird, and not only is his gorgeous voice is perfect for the part but he matches Santesteban's performance nuance for nuance. They are a great pair with electric chemistry, and perfectly cast. Azoralla Arroyo Caballero is in his first performance on a professional stage, and he nails it. Vi's youth is central to the conversations about her experience, and Caballero's thoughtfully adolescent performance is one more reminder of how amazing this current young generation is. Caballero's nuanced portrayal is a reminder that the societal issues we face about gender and sexual identity aren't problems with people knowing who they are: it's problems with those of us who were raised in a society that pretended they didn't exist in the first place. Helped with this perspective is the magical presence of Catherine Charles Hammond as Crux, Vi's merperson and a crucial mentor to her in her quest for safety and acceptance. Hammond gracefully sings through sparkling numbers, and their quiet but strong performance (replete with terrific advice) at the end of the show will cause you to think deeply. Meng Xiong was new-to-me as Vi's best friend Jacob; watch out, because I think he's about to be one of the newest #tctheater stars. His breakdancing interlude in particular gave me a radiant moment of joy. And Sheena Janson is a musical rockstar as Jacob's mother Mika, her beautiful voice giving so much depth to the songs. Love, love, love them all.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The set, designed by Britton Mauk, is intriguingly hung off the wall of the main stage. This is used surprisingly effectively, and it gives the sense of a busy middle class home while still leaving the stage free for the performers to dance and move quickly. Two vignette stages are broken off in the corners (make sure to get a seat where you can turn around) and give the supporting characters their own time in the spotlight. The costumes by Valerie St. Pierre Smith are simple but do a great job of evoking each character's persona, and the choreography from Movement Director Sarah Lozoff is similarly simple but efficient. The most impressive behind-the-scenes element for me is the work of composer Eric Mayson, who totally invented music for this show,* and Director Leah Anderson, whose comprehensive vision clearly leads Mermaid Hour to a messy, beautiful success - just like real life.

Photo by Rich Ryan

I love shows that make me think, especially those that make me think without making me depressed. Mermaid Hour: Remixed tackles some very tough subjects, but it always does it with love and respect at its core. This clear foundation in empathy and understanding allows the narrative to go so much deeper than it otherwise might. Constellating the main story are a host of other deftly handled and really important conversations, such as allowing youth to own their power (hello there #parklandstudents); changing with your changing marriage; allowing kids a safe place to explore and find acceptance, even if you don't understand it; and so much more. Although this story centers around trans and queer kids, I imagine that many parents could relate to the experiences of Bird and Pilar, and I definitely encourage you to go even if you think it "doesn't apply to you;" I guarantee you'll be surprised at how much you relate.

Photo by Rich Ryan

There seems to be an explosion of plays diving deep into the gender and sexuality spectrum these days, especially around the trans experience. All I can say is amen and keep it going! There is such a need to discuss these issues, not only to normalize them and help make the world a more tolerant place for trans and queer people, but to also provide resources for healthcare needs, mental health support, and better quality of life. We've come leaps and bounds societally in even the last five years, but it's not a fast enough transition to keep trans people from being murdered or discrimination from preventing trans people from freely living their lives. Anything that raises awareness about these issues is vital and necessary, and this beautiful, subtle production of Mermaid Hour: Remixed is perhaps my favorite I've seen of this journey so far. If you're interested (and you should be), click here for more information and to get tickets. Please also make sure to check out some of the other shows that have been cropping up to talk about trans and queer identities; we have such a vibrant LGBTQIA community here and they are doing some incredible work:

Photo by Rich Ryan



*A word on the music: Mermaid Hour: Remixed is part of a rolling premiere of the play Mermaid Hour, which is concurrently debuting at multiple theaters around the U.S. A rolling premiere means each theater gets more freedom to develop their rendition of a new show through a concurrent world premiere. Of all of the performances of Mermaid Hour currently running, the Mixed Blood rendition is the only version that is being staged as a musical, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Mixed Blood Team. I have to say that after seeing the show this way, I really can't imagine it as a play - the music adds such life to the show, it's really a great way to go.