“The Adventures of Herculina” is a play by Kira Obolensky, who co-wrote “Hate Mail,” one of the first plays I saw in Seattle. This play is based on the true story of Herculine Barbin, an intersex person living in France in the late 19th century (the age of scientific curiosities). At birth, doctors decided Herculine was female, and this s/he was treated as such until just after puberty, when s/he began suffering chronic pain and was examined by a doctor. It was discovered that Herculine had two sets of under-formed genitalia, but the doctor decided Herculine should now be treated as a man. In this new guise, Herculine moved to Paris, wrote his/her memoirs (supposedly as part of therapy), then killed him/herself. The Wikipedia article is here.
I find intersexed people fascinating, as there are so many varieties of intersex bodies. The range of human physicality and sexuality is amazing. I was really excited for this play, but I have to admit that I’m pretty disappointed. Not with Macha Monkey’s production, but the script. The production featured a cast of mostly young actors, who hadn’t quite broken out of “actor voice” to find their own on-stage speech rhythm, and that’s a common problem and doesn’t mean they weren’t interesting. I sympathize with it, and I think the show was cast very, very well considering the limitations on casting in small theatre. The costumes and set complimented the show, although I wonder why they decided to have a painted stage with two smaller levels rather than perhaps using a bare stage, but the set didn’t detract from the show at all.
The problems I have with the production center around Obolensky’s script. Lyric, mythical theatre is definitely gaining steam, and characters with monologues about the haze on the moon, the chill in the air, the hunger everyone is feeling, or something else abstract are not uncommon, and when written well, it can be amazing theatre. When written poorly or assembled poorly, it feels trite, like it is trying too hard to be beautiful, and that is how this script impressed me. The play, like many modern plays, is divided into two acts by an intermission — the first act centered on Herculina’s time in a convent school (which she mysteriously enters), and her love for a classmate named Sara which ends up getting her expelled; the second act is much more scattered, picking up random fictional pieces of the newly-masculine Hercule and his travels, as a servant to the wealthy in Paris, as a homeless traveler, as an intersex prostitute (only insinuated), and finally as a side-show act, where he eschews his humanity forever. Not only did the two acts feel like they belonged to two different plays, the show leaves out the *real* fascinating bits of Herculine’s life. The first act could easily have been scattered into multiple scenes as Herculina navigates what it is like to be female, possibly a lesbian, or just a confused person falling in love with a series of women — in reality, Herculine’s romantic history was much more sordid than let on, as she fell in love with classmates and teachers, first at the convent school (which she got a scholarship to — it would have been nice to see something positive about Herculina, like s/he’s a highly intelligent person, rather than a two-dimensional freak who doesn’t belong and spouts lyrical nonsense about belonging to nature), then later as an assistant teacher at a girls’ school. The act of writing the memoirs could easily be used as a device for flashbacks — I know this is done a lot, but it would have added a thread of consistency. Maybe using two people for each stage of Herculine’s life, one male and one female, who appear on stage at the same time? Nothing felt unified about this script, except the thread of love for Sara, the search for Sara, and Sara’s alternate love and disgust that eventually leads to rejection.
Telling stories about intersexed people is increasingly important as they gain more visibility in political/moral spheres. It is important in itself to have a play about an intersexed person, just for the sake of performing it. However, Obolensky seems to want the story to become universal, forcing a thread of true love where there isn’t one in the original biography. I suppose it is to make Herculina seem more human to audiences that don’t comprehend intersexed individuals — perhaps don’t even know they exist — but it comes off more as melodrama, desperation cloaked in social acceptance. The story could easily play up the tragedy of Herculine’s suicide, but does not. We could feel deep sympathy with perhaps more visible rejection, but Herculina hides his/her gender until the very, very end of the play. The show wasn’t brave enough, frankly, to speak loudly and clearly about intersexed issues, choosing instead to hide behind a stereotypical storyline and pseudo-poetic insinuations that Herculina doesn’t belong.
It is an awkward script that I think Macha Monkey handled as well as it could. Perhaps there were moments, like the moment with the prostitute, or sneaking into Sara’s bed, or the very end scene at the carnival, that are more explicit in the script and were brushed over for comfort’s sake, but overall I think the script’s masking of Herculine’s true experiences and the pain of his/her life, and eventual suicide, lead easily to a puritanical treatment of the script — and that is simply unacceptable.