I used to teach middle school. Each year we would stage a 1-act ‘junior’ version of a musical to the delight of the community. Grandparents beamed with pride, tweens broke out of their shells, costumes were taken too seriously. It was always a beautiful event that brought people together: It felt like a public service... but (let’s be honest) it wasn’t amazing art. Conversely: I’ve often been in the audience of an opera or a symphony and seen tremendous art… but felt no community. I’ve left many theaters feeling entertained but disappointed that I didn’t have more than pretty music to take with me. That my first step onto the sidewalk would take me out of the artistic sanctuary and back into the real world where things are exactly as they were two hours earlier... which perhaps means all the lovely music was just escapism. It did nothing to bring people in the real world any connection or healing. I mention these two scenarios because it’s a sweet miracle when a show is both beautiful art and real-world connection. Skylark Opera’s production of AS ONE is a sweet miracle.
If you’ve never been to the North Garden Theater in St. Paul, it’s easy to find. It’s on historic W. 7th St. just down the block from Shamrock’s Irish Pub (which was quite the party when I walked by on St. Patrick’s Day). The theater is a simple and beautiful space, a large room that could also function as an art gallery. Walking through the door, you see the stage populated by the evening’s string quartet and conductor (I also heard an accordion so for a brief moment I thought the show was orchestrated for string quartet+accordion, but alas, it was only the house music). I had imbibed earlier, in honor of St. Patrick, so I didn’t need to check out the venue’s well stocked bar. Upon reading the program I learned that the show featured only 2 actors and projected film throughout… I was intrigued.
Whenever I review a show I remain willfully ignorant of it ahead of time, which allows me the experience of discovering it for the first time as I sit in the audience. In this audience, the act of discovery was patient and amazing. After the quartet began a male actor entered, embodying the mannerisms of a young boy. Shortly thereafter a female actor entered, dressed exactly the same as the man. I was more intrigued. The two tandem characters ebbed and flowed together; one being the center of attention while the other was literally in their shadow. Quickly I realize, the two actors are the same character. YES! I love storytelling that defies usual convention. To make a pop culture reference, it felt like This Is Us where stories are told in multiple concurrent timelines.
AS ONE tells the story of the character Hannah who is born biologically male, spends years defining her own gender identity, and transitions to a female body in adulthood. In this production, Luke Williams and Bergen Baker bring Hannah to life with a complex sincerity. At the beginning of the story, Luke is at the forefront: telling most of the story with Bergen occasionally interjecting. As Hannah identifies less as male and more as female, Bergen takes the lead and Luke fades to the background. My favorite scene was in the middle where Hannah has a fight with herself (Luke vs. Bergen) and a very tangible struggle offers a beautiful metaphor for an internal struggle of identity.
The action of the show is snippets of Hannah’s life, shown chronologically through childhood, young adulthood, college years, transitioning, living in fear, and finally living beyond fear. There’s no stated plot, but rather the implied plot that is each of our lives – how to accept the childhood we received, how to hear the small voice inside whispering what we can become, how to create the life true to ourselves, and how to exist in that life in a world that may or may not give a damn about us.
The music is very through-composed, always active but scarcely repeating itself. It expresses the narrative and emotional tone of each moment with vivid clarity. But (as with all through-composed music) you won’t leave the theater humming any memorable ditties.
By its very composition, the show is minimal. One character, one string quartet, one continuous film. Any production of this opera (of which there are many) would seem to belittle itself to have elaborate costume changes or set pieces. Which means the audience is left viewing a show that is boldly minimal. Even the descriptions of the plot itself are often sparse. In my opinion, AS ONE, feels like an ‘art gallery’ opera (to invent a term). This is a sleek, tidy show that tells one story with clarity. It is not flashy, it is not (visually) grandiose, but by its very existence it is bold. At the post-show discussion I asked the entire creative team (and audience) if anyone knew of other pieces of theater that feature a transgender character. No one did. The creators of AS ONE clearly set out to scout new territory. On St. Patrick’s Day 2018 it is a very bold thing to feature a transgender character on a stage. This piece is clearly opening the door to more stories of transgender individuals. Perhaps those shows can have full orchestras and costume changes and love stories but only time will tell. Until then, this ‘art gallery’ opera is leading the charge.
It would be easy to put this opera in a little box and call it ‘the transgender opera’ but that would be a gross simplification, so I’ll try not to do that. The heart of the story is about childhood expectations feeling constricting. It’s about being taught conformity and how that can make you feel like a freak. How it can lead you to isolate yourself until the day comes that you don’t want to be alone anymore, the world be damned. And isn’t that the plot of every social movement? Isn’t that why the punks have mosh pits and why John Lennon sarcastically sang “HEY! you’ve got to hide your love away”? AS ONE is the story of a person feeling different than everyone around them and gradually realizing they’re not alone. You can relate to that. I can.
Bergen Baker was compelling. She was quiet in contemplative moments and powerful in moments of passion – providing the most vivid scenes of the night as her voice resonated through the room. Luke Williams played his role with mastery, though much of his character is doubtful, pensive, and scared…which will never earn his role the heroic spotlight.
Now...onto the bubble bursting. The moment the show had ended and bows had been taken, the audience was invited to the post-show discussion with an urgency I’ve never seen before. Skylark representative Vera Mariner spoke to the audience with sincerity that the evening was really only half over; that the art means little until we burst the bubble of opera and get back to the real world. DAMN VERA! She spoke of how she likes these nightly (yes, after every performance) post-show discussions to be the segue between art and reality. Which implicitly raises the question: “If art happens in a vacuum, does it matter?”
Each of these post-show discussions features representatives from local organizations such as the One Voice Mixed Chorus and RECLAIM: a local resource center providing mental health support for queer and trans youth. If you know of another piece of theater that so actively connects audiences to advocacy groups please let me know. And check out AS ONE while you can.