Gender identity explored on stage

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A scene from Eugenia with Jill Foster as Eugenia and Monique Cowern as Violet Donovan, Eugenia's wife.
A scene from Eugenia with Jill Foster as Eugenia and Monique Cowern as Violet Donovan, Eugenia's wife.

Eugenia
Napier Repertory Players
Little Theatre, 76 McGrath St, Napier
June 15-26
Reviewed by Kay Bazzard

Eugenia, written by Lorae Parry and presented by the Napier Repertory Players, is an ambitious play exploring gender identity.

Parry based her play on a book by Suzanne Falkiner, Eugenia - A Man, and is a fictional view of the life of Eugenia Falleni, an Italian-born New Zealander who dressed as a man, was disowned by her family and in 1920 was accused of murdering her wife in Lane Cove, Sydney.

The play explores the difficulties transgender people faced 100 years ago, and are still facing today, which is highlighted as the dramatic sequence switches between the past (1916) and the present.

In 2016, the scene is a school hall where a drama teacher, deputy principal and a group of Year 13 students are working on a play based on the book about Eugenia Falleni.

It is paralleling Parry's experiences in creating her script, revealing how current attitudes about transgender people are still deeply conflicted.

In 1916, Jack Martelli, a man in a woman's body, is determined to be himself while deceiving his beloved and struggling to live an impossible life in an era when gender difference was considered to be perverted and evil.

The cast of seven seemed larger as most members played two or three roles, past and present.

They all gave very strong performances, especially the leading actors Jill Foster playing Eugenia (Jack) and Georgina Matheson, the deputy principal, and Monique Cowern playing Violet Donovan, Jack's Irish wife and the openly lesbian teacher Iris who is promoting the idea of developing a challenging school play.

The discovery of Jack's true identity is the dramatic pivot of the story, so believably portrayed by these actors in challenging and emotional performances.

Terrence Bull, who plays Vincent, a boosy, intimidating bully, plus Cooper the school principal, deserve special mention. He and the younger actors, doubling as Year 13 students, conveyed well the conflicted thinking of modern attitudes.

I particularly enjoyed Jacquie Hills' performance as Mrs Bassani, she was both alluring and vulnerable as the Italian boarding house owner.

Violet's soft Irish lilt was natural and authentic, as was Mrs Bassani's Italian, although it was a bit puzzling that Jack had a strong Italian accent even though he/she had lived in New Zealand from the age of 2.

Parry's play combines singing, music and dance and this was both a positive addition to the stage work, linking the time switches, and a weakness in that some of the dance sequences seemed a little gratuitous and probably needed some editing.

The production places great demands on the cast and they rose to the challenges, yet I get the sense that this show will improve as the cast becomes fully embedded into their roles.

Congratulations to the cast, to the director Anne Corney for successfully tackling this ambitious project, and the support crew responsible for the costumes (great), the lighting and stage settings and the fine programme.

- For tickets phone (06) 835 1059.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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