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Arts and Entertainment Monday, Jul. 29, 2019 4 months ago

Urbanite Theatre's 'Scorch' proves gender isn't a simple equation

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The theater company's latest production is an edgy exploration of identity.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Are you: (A) Male (B) Female (C) All of the Above (D) None of the Above? To the hero of Stacey Gregg’s “Scorch” it’s not an academic question. Their story is now on stage at Urbanite Theatre.

Meet Kes. They're a typical teenager — a C-student who likes playing video games like BioShock and Halo and is starting to like girls. Puberty’s still percolating. Kes is still growing into their body and sense of self, just like millions of other adolescents.

The only problem: Kes' interior sexual identity doesn’t match the person in the mirror. The box for “female” was checked on their birth certificate.

At first, Kes identifies as a boy and decides to live their life that way, biological equipment or not. Before long, Kes connects with a teenage girl online. Just friends, at first. Then more. Romance blossoms in a garden of messages via text, Instagram and Tumblr. A Skype chat is the acid test. Kes nervously agrees to it. Now this online couple will finally get to see each other! But that’s OK. Thanks to certain internet forums, Kes has learned how to look like a boy. Attired in manly garb topped with a hat to hide any loose hair, Kes goes through with the video chat. And pulls it off.

Amber McNew stars in "Scorch." Photo by Dylan Jon Wade Cox

After that, Kes meets said girlfriend in real life — and the pair quickly get intimate. Kes returns to those helpful forums in hopes of staying seen as male in the lovemaking department. Kes passes that test, too. Everything’s going swell. For Kes, this all feels like living in a personal rom-com. Until the world comes crashing down.

Summer Wallace directs this gender journey with a deep-end-of-the-pool strategy. You don’t enter Kes’ reality with timid baby steps. Nope. Wallace just throws you in. Sink or swim, ready or not. Either figure it out or go under. 

In McNew’s characterization, Kes is a real live wire. Both physically and verbally. Sometimes, bouncing around the stage like Tigger or awkwardly flailing about doing karate chops. At other times, rapping a mile a minute, and spilling Kes’ heart all over the stage. McNew doesn’t merely break the fourth wall. She disintegrates it. Not only looking you in the eye and asking questions. Climbing into the seats and getting into your space.

Summer Wallace directed "Scorch." Photo by Dylan Jon Wade Cox

So, what’s happening here? You gradually figure out that Kes is telling this tale in an LGBTQ group therapy session. The tale is sad, and it seems so unfair. But a bright moment is when the pronoun "they" is brought into Kes' orbit. The teen learns about pronoun preference, and how going by they rather than he or she signals others that Kes falls somewhere between man and woman on the gender spectrum. Everything else starts to fall into place. 

You can’t help rooting for Kes. The character feels so real, and this production gets you inside their head. That’s rare. And it takes the right playwright, director and actor to do it.

You get all three in this production.

Gregg’s script beautifully evokes Kes’ character — and the inner reality of a self-conscious teen whose identity is a work-in-progress. Kes’ thoughts zip around in a stream-of-consciousness patois that’s pure poetry at times. I’d say McNew delivers the performance of a lifetime. But she’s just starting out, so let’s wait and see what she does next. Wallace’s direction leaves you no place to hide. You’re not a passive spectator. You’re in the show. 

That show is gripping, fearless and smart. Kudos. So, what does it all mean?

I’m happy to say there’s no fortune cookie take-away. I’d hate it if there were.

"Scorch" was co-produced by Judith Berson and Doug Bradbury. Photo by Dylan Jon Wade Cox

Issue-oriented plays often feel like after-school specials. “Scorch” asks hard questions but withholds glib answers. Impartial? Far from it. The playwright stacks the deck against suspicious, “laser-eyed” moms and mean, homophobic judges with wrinkled faces. But Gregg doesn’t dismiss or excuse Kes’ “gender fraud.” And neither does Kes. The teen isn’t proud of the deceptive act. Kes regrets it, but you only find out about this character-turn after joining Kes on a happy, wild ride through puberty. You’re with the teen all the way — right up to the “Oh, God. What have I done?” realization. 

Amber McNew is a student at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training. Photo by Dylan Jon Wade Cox

That seems to be Gregg’s style. The playwright doesn’t want to make you comfortable or soothe you with smug conclusions.  “Scorch” isn’t a morality play about a youth gone wrong. Or a PC grenade lobbed at haters. It’s a glimpse at a world in flux that often confuses gender and sexuality — one does not imply the other.

That includes the gay community. Once upon a time, that was easily defined: gay or straight. But that’s evolved into the algebraic LGBTQ (or LGBTQIA to include intersex and asexual individuals as well as allies) — and that might still be too simplistic. At one point, Kes even mocks the five main categories. Is Kes lesbian? Transgender? Gender-curious? What? The teen doesn’t easily fit into any of these conceptual boxes. And why stuff our main character in a box in the first place? What the heck does gender mean anyway?

Gregg withholds an answer. Not because she’s evasive but because there is none. At least not yet. Heck, we’re still figuring out the pronouns. 

The cultural jury’s still out on the mixed-up, muddled-up equation of human sexuality. We might sort it all out in the next decade. Or next century. Barring any helpful time travelers, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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