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David Harrison in FTM
(Photo © John-Francis Bourke)
"I didn't have a clue about being a girl," says Timothy. Born biologically female, he is now an FTM -- a female-to-male transsexual. The point of view of his story is one rarely seen in the theater. Writer/performer David Harrison, himself an FTM, presents a provocative tale that challenges audiences' preconceptions of both gender and sexuality; but Garrison has not quite managed to turn it into a compelling piece of theater.

In addition to Timothy's story, FTM concerns Jean, Timothy's mother, whose battle with breast cancer provides an interesting counterpoint to Timothy's transformation from woman to man. Their experiences, while very different in many respects, have several points in common. For example, both take male hormones -- Timothy to facilitate his gender change, Jean to combat the cancer. The solo performance revolves around such moments of transition and the ways in which they affect the two characters.

Harrison goes back and forth between the two narratives, donning a terrycloth robe as Jean and sporting a blue soccer shirt and jeans as Timothy. Unfortunately, the writer/performer lacks a strong theatrical presence. In particular, his rendition of the mother character comes across as forced and affected. Since Harrison has been performing this piece for nearly a decade, it's somewhat surprising that he seems so tentative: He trips over several of his words and his low-key delivery doesn't have the necessary energy to sustain the hour-long show.

The script is also problematic. The narrative structure is choppy and it takes a while for us to figure out that not only is Harrison playing two different characters but also that Timothy and Jean are speaking in two different time periods. Director Suzi Takahashi has not managed to clarify the transitions, and the uncredited lighting design makes things even more confusing; during one sequence, for example, an orange light illuminates a large section of the audience for no apparent reason.

The piece works best when Timothy shares some personal anecdotes about life as an FTM. In one story, he spies someone of ambiguous gender in the subway and begins obsessing about whether that person is also an FTM. Later in the show, he talks about the first time he used a men's room. He was not confident enough to attempt the urinal, so he used a stall -- but, even there, he worried that someone overhearing him pee might think that it sounded different. Delivered simply, these anecdotes capture Timothy's longing and vulnerability in a poignant and humorous way.

Although Harrison has given a fictional frame to his story, it's purportedly based upon his own life. Before his transition, Harrison also battled breast cancer. His offstage romance with former lover Kate Bornstein, a male-to-female transsexual playwright and performer, has been remarked upon in several news articles and academic essays. But neither of these experiences are directly acknowledged in FTM. There is an MTF character in the show, named Veronica, who may possibly be modeled after Bornstein; Timothy mentions in passing that the two had sexual relations with each other while Timothy (then called "Tess") was still a woman and a lesbian. Now that he's a man, however, Timothy desires other men.

This is not as mind-boggling as it may sound. In recent years, an increasingly visible transgender community has developed and has confounded conventional notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality. One of the strengths of Harrison's performance piece is that he never utilizes his sex change for shock value; rather, his story is understated and very human.

While the two-character structure provides an interesting perspective, FTM might have worked better as a straightforward autobiographical narrative. This story certainly deserves to be told, and that may explain the accolades that the show received when performed elsewhere. But FTM is more effective conceptually than in its execution.

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