by David Allan King
It hurts to be beautiful. And in Nina Arsenault's one-woman show The Silicone Diaries, that's both literal and figurative.
After a successful run at Toronto's Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, Arsenault takes the Montreal stage this week for a performance that has captivated critics and earned itself a run in Ottawa's upcoming Magnetic North Theatre Festival (celebrating the cream of the crop in contemporary creation). All rightly so: The Silicone Diaries, written and performed by a transgendered beauty well beyond 'passable', takes on that last bastion of queer theatre we still haven't fully explored: trans, post-op life and culture. And as Arsenault nails it, the notion of a 'woman 'trapped in a man's body' barely scratches the surface of the transgendered experience.
Carefully and sensitively directed by Buddies' Artistic Director (and former Montrealer) Brendan Healey, The Silicone Diaries takes us from Arsenault's childhood to her current spiritual quest, with some hilarious turns on life as a web cam girl, silicone injection user, sex trade worker and Pamela Anderson wannabe. By keeping its focus on plastic surgery addiction, the text lifts us beyond the usual 'transition story' to focus on the never-ending, Barbie beauty myth entrapment. As Vagina Monologues' Eve Ensler showed us in her follow-up monologues The Good Body, women (and gay men) will never feel truly satisfied with the outer equipment.
Not quite vocally warmed up for the La Chapelle space (some script fumbles opening night should iron themselves out), Arsenault nevertheless doesn't take long to seduce us into an hour and forty-five minute, non-stop performance. Her stories, extending themselves in extremes from comedic to tragic, are as absorbing as our freak-show urge to simply examine her body on stage after sixty surgeries and a couple hundred thousand dollars. Eventually on self-destruct, Arsenault shows us how transitioning to a woman didn't end for her when it comes to the relentless quest for beauty. As much a social construct as gender roles themselves, beauty, in the world of plastic surgery, is as fragile and fleeting as the rise from ballerina-to-primadonna, actor-to-moviestar, or model-to-supermodel.
As Arsenault demonstrates her martyrdom for beauty live on stage, she's juxtaposed on screen with highly personal family photos, graphic surgeries and her own text-in-motion. I'm thankful for those images, creatively integrated into Trevor Schwellnus' gorgeous, zen-like set and lighting. By overdosing on Arsenault's unattainable quest for a 'universal' beauty, there's an injection needed in this play of a truly universal element in the theatre - the character's humanity - to get under our skin and redeem the robot, so to speak. Traces of that redemption are spotty here - a child yearns, projections build into before-and-after shots, an exercise bike trek takes a shot at the inner struggle. Ultimately, however, we're left with little knowledge of Arsenault's inner workings and struggle with addiction. By winding down as an ambiguously artificial cyborg (the Japanese references in the text tie in nicely with the production design), Arsenault's "next phase of work" (spirituality and the inner self) comes up too little, too late. And plastic, like any piece of technology, is just mass if no one's behind it.
When Arsenault does own her performance, she truly owns it. Dubbed "full, frank and fierce" in its playbill, The Silicone Diaries is a lot less full or fierce than frank, but in her least connected moments, Arsenault always manages to nab our attention. This is one of the most courageous pieces of queer theatre, however flawed, that a Canuck audience of our generation can see. Queer aside, it points a long fingernail at all of us (but especially the straight patriarchy, of course) for constructing gender roles and ostracizing individuals who don't fit into them.
The straight men in Arsenault's world, as trapped and isolated as Arsenault once felt transitioning, are paralleled well in Arsenault's text, which will soon be published in the book Trans(per)forming Nina Arsenault: Body of Work, Body of Art. Healey, perhaps stemming from his own Montreal experience, does a great job in avoiding the 'static' Toronto theatre aesthetic here that is often accredited to productions transported from T.O. If you can forgive Arsenault's artificiality without the payoff, The Silicone Diaries may be just the right piece of Montreal theatre you're looking for this week.
Running until this Saturday, December 18
Tickets are limited - call (514) 843-7738. Visit the "Silicone Diaries" on Facebook
In CharPo read Richard Burnett's interview with Nina Arsenault