Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Calligraphy
Not the storyline one would normally expect from ancient Greek mythology, this thousands-year-old story about a girl named Caenis who later becomes a powerful warrior in ancient Thessaly as a man named Caeneus is extremely modern and altogether timely. At a time when transgender and gender-fluid rights are being challenged and contested so soon after they were finally recognized and won, Dragon Productions Theatre Company boldly offers a world premiere of Caeneus & Poseidon by Bridgette Dutta Portman, demonstrating that acknowledging incorrect gender assignments at birth are not just some recent fad, as the alt-right might want us to believe. Inspired by a myth of old, the playwright adds modern touches and flairs to Caeneus & Poseidon to show how a man not born as man can rise above societal prejudices to become a hero to himself and to all the many former ridiculers around himan inspiring and important prototype hero for us all in 2017.
Caenis is about to marry her childhood friend and now Lapith king, Pirithous, when she confides in her other best friend, Hippodamia, the confessions of being a man in a woman's body. Running away moments before the vows are to be said, she heads to the sea, ready to drown her untenable situation forever. Rising from the depths with erotic desire gleaming from his salty eyes, Poseidon rescues her and promises any wish if she will first let him end her maidenhood. Caenis immediately sees the god-given way to become Caeneus, and thus the tide turns in former-her/now-his life. But the road will not be an easy one, even as he becomes a famed warrior. When he heads back a year later to his home, Caeneus find his beloved friend Hippodamia is now about to wed Pirithous, who still longs for the supposedly drowned Caenis and cares little for his new bride except as a means for sons and assured posterity.
And, in the meantime, Poseidon is furious that he was forced to turn his beautiful maiden into a man and means to seek full revenge, completing the initial minutes' set-up for the play's ensuing possibilities for intrigue, twists and turns, as well as trials and hopeful but unlikely triumphs. Certainly, Caeneus & Poseidon has all the potential ingredients for a modern, hit myth.
While kudos goes to Dragon for staging this premiere, putting a transgender man's journey into the spotlight to find and prove himself, the production itself is unfortunately quite rough in many placesfrom script to acting to production values. There are a number of bright and promising spots where, for a few minutes, everything seems to come together for intriguing, heartfelt drama. However, there are too many times when the script drifts, lines are unintelligible, scenes are awkwardly and clumsily transitioned, fights looks fake, and a scene comes close to being cartoonish when it should not.
One of the consistently brighter parts of the production is Sharon Shao's portrayal of Hippodamia. From the time she is shocked to hear of Caenis's refusal to marry her intended to the later relationship the two renew and deepen in new ways when her friend returns as Caeneus, her Hippodamia is absolutely believable in her emotions, her reactions, and her decisions. Sharon Shao is appropriately measured and cautious as a young woman in a society where women are mostly ignored except for their sex appeal, and she is passionate and powerful when it comes time for her to step outside the prevailing norms to stand up for her love and lover.
Daniel Joyce is also strong throughout his portrayal of Pirithous, the king and would-be groom (to Caenis, then to Hippodamia). His moments of boy-like pal time with first Caenis and then Caeneus, of a temper that rises in its velocity at shocking speeds, and of expressive remorse for the love he thinks he lost at sea are all noteworthy.
As Caenis/Caeneus, Nicky Martinez transforms stance, voice and demeanor, and often hits the target in convincing ways to become the brave but loving warrior. However, enough lines are said as if reading for the first time and enough stumbles occur in others to make the overall performance a bit too uneven for the lead, title role. There is much promise but a need for more consistency.
Other performances fare less well overall, particularly the three Nereidssea nymphs serving Poseidon who both serve as Greek chorus and as agitators to stir up trouble for Caeneus once he returns home under his new guise. Their unison-delivered lines are more distracting and disrupting than helpful, and some of their singular lines (particularly in one actor's case) are uniformly and completely unintelligible. The script is also not kind to them, leading them to a complete transformation of character that goes totally unexplained as to why it could ever have occurred.
This is a production I want to like much more than I do and one I wish I could recommend it more than I will. The intention on the part of playwright and Company is noble and inspired. The timing of the offering is perfect. The present script and the production itself are just not quite ready for a full staging.
Caeneus & Poseidon continues through April 2, 2017, at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City, CA. Tickets are available online at dragonproductions.net or by calling 650-493-2006.