|L-R: Anna Martine Freeman and Alice McCarthy in ROTTERDAM. Photo by Hunter Canning.|
When her boyfriend, Josh (Ed Eales-White), introduces Alice (Alice McCarthy) to his gay kid sister Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman), Alice can no longer remain in denial of the truth she has known but refused to admit even to herself since she was nine years old: Alice “likes” Fiona and doesn’t really “like” Josh in the same way. In fact, Alice has always “liked” girls rather than boys. In fact, Alice is a lesbian.
Fiona has been out of the closet for years but Alice still is not – and doesn’t come out fully even after they become lovers. Oh, a few people know - including Josh, of course, with whom Alice remains close friends and Lelani (Ellie Morris), Alice’s young, gay, ditzy co-worker - but her parents don’t know and Alice is reluctant to tell them. Indeed, the reason Alice has remained in Rotterdam for the past seven years has been to avoid returning home to England where she’d be forced to tell them.
And then, when Alice finally summons up the courage to e-mail her parents with the truth but before she manages to hit “send,” Fiona discloses that she has an even more momentous announcement to make: Fiona is transgender; she has always known that she is really a man and, while she may or may not ultimately opt to undergo transsexual surgical procedures, from now on she wants to live as one; her - or rather his - new man’s name is Adrian.
Alice and Fiona – I mean Adrian (or do I?) – are truly in love. But how can that be? If Alice is in love with Adrian and Adrian is a man, does that mean that Alice really isn’t a lesbian after all? If Fiona was a woman (at least in Alice’s eyes) and Adrian is a man, are Fiona and Adrian really the same person? Might Alice have been in love with Fiona and not now be in love with Adrian? But how can that be if Adrian doesn’t really believe that he is changing but is only belatedly admitting to himself and others who and what he always has been?
And what of Josh and Adrian? If Josh only lost Alice to Fiona because Alice was a lesbian and Fiona was a woman but Alice is no longer a lesbian and Fiona is now a man, does that mean that Josh has a second shot at wooing Alice? And if Alice is still a lesbian and Adrian truly loves her, is he prepared to go back to being Fiona for her sake?
Rotterdam by Jon Brittain is a beautifully written play, not only heart-wrenching but highly entertaining, simultaneously dramatic, comedic, and thought-provoking. It is a plea for greater understanding of the pain endured by many in the LGBTQ world but, even more than that, it is an exploration into the very nature of “identity.”
Is “identity” the core that is left when we peel away all the outer layers of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and whatever biological or cultural traits we may express – what many might see as our fundamental selves, our essences, our spirits or our souls? Or is it quite the opposite: is there no such core at all, is the idea of a “self” or a “soul” a mere illusion, and is it the sum total of all those outer layers – our race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and whatever other biological or cultural traits we may express – that constitute our true identities?
In Rotterdam, Jon Brittain may not answer all those questions – no one really could, certainly not to everyone’s satisfaction anyway – but he gives us lots to think about and that’s more than enough.
Ed Eales-White, in his role as Josh, conveys warmth and sensitivity in his relationships both with his lost love, Alice, and with his kid sister, Fiona (now his kid brother, Adrian). Ellie Morris as Lelni adds just the right comedic touch to this otherwise heartbreaking production as a gay naïf, all firecrackers and silver lame, who somehow manages to evade the advances of her boss – a married man twice her age and her father’s best friend – while yet benefiting from living rent-free with him and his family. Alice McCarthy plays Alice with the perfect balance of propriety, loyalty, vulnerability, and uncertainty that the role demands. And Anna Martine Freeman pulls off the toughest role of all: she is both lesbian Fiona and transgender Adrian – and she forces us to believe it.
Ellan Parry’s set design on a small stage that lesser designers might have found limiting also deserves recognition. It is all primary colors and larger than life murals with doors leading in and out of unseen corridors, capturing the intensity of the emotional roller-coaster on stage. And a cleverly concealed closet for coming in and out – both literally and figuratively.
Having played to sold-out audiences in London (where it won the prestigious Olivier Award), Rotterdam currently is making its US premiere as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in Manhattan. I urge you to see it.