Sommerfugl Review: The Earliest Transgender Story (Minus Eddie Redmayne)

“Sommerfugl” at the 4th Street Theater is a new Off-Off Broadway play inspired by the true story of a Danish man who had gender reassignment surgery, way back in 1930 — the same story that inspired a non-fiction book, a best-selling novel, and a new film adaptation of that novel, “The Danish Girl,” starring Eddie Redmayne, which premiered at the Venice film festival earlier this month and is expected to hit movie theaters in November.

It’s not so surprising that the story of the person who underwent what is described as one of the first publicly acknowledged transgender surgeries is being told more than once, given how much attention the “T” in “LGBT” is finally getting. In the short time since Laverne Cox first made such a splash as a transgender performer portraying a transgender character in “Orange Is The New Black” on Netflix, followed by “Transparent” on Amazon, there’s been an explosion of transgender representation on screen and on stage, especially this season, some better known than others (“I Am Cait.”) Tom Phelan, who plays a transgender teenager on the TV show The Fosters, will be co-starring in Taylor Mac’s “Hir,” which begins performances next month at Playwrights Horizons. Kathleen Turner is set to direct and star in “Would You Still Love Me If …” about how the relationship between a lesbian couple is affected when one of the women begins to question her gender identity; it’s set to open at New World Stages on October 10. Abrons Arts Center will be the host for a free three-day festival October 23 to October 25 entitled “Just Like A Woman,” described as an exploration into “the ways femininity can be ‘performed’ and representations of gender can be queered through performance.” In a bizarre and horrifying twist on the subject, “Death of the Persian Prince,” wrapping up its latest run, at the Duo Multicultural Arts Center (down the block from “Sommerfugl” ), sheds light on the practice in Iran of gay men being pressured into sex change surgery in order to escape prosecution. Homosexuality is illegal in Iran, carrying a possible death sentence, while sex reassignment surgery is legal.

Playwright Bixby Elliot adds to this growing lineup with “Sommerfugl,” a play about the transition of Einar Wegener into Lili Elbe. It has some lyrical touches, and is enhanced by an appealing four-member cast under the direction of Stephen Bracket (best known for having directed the terrific “Buyer & Cellar.”) But Elliot opts for a largely conventional chronological account, fudging the details and softening the harshest facts of the true story, and focusing on the relationship between Einar and his wife Gerte.

At the start of “Sommerfugl,” an ethereal Wayne Wilcox steps into the center of the stage, just inches from the audience, completely naked (which makes it immediately clear that the performer is not himself transgender), and as if in a trance recites “This is my body” – and goes through an inventory of his body parts (“My head. My neck.” Etc. “My cock.”)

Then, putting on clothes, he adds “And I am like a deceiver,
like a usurper who has reigned over a body which has ceased to be his own, like a person who owns merely the facade of his own house.”

The actual Einar/Lili
The actual Einar/Lili

It’s safe to say that Einar never uttered such a speech (which works much better on stage than it might look on the page.) The next scene, far more straightforward, is in its own way just as surprising. Gerte, a painter, asks Einar to stand in for her model, who hasn’t shown up, by donning woman’s attire. His dressing up awakens Einar’s awareness of his desire to be a woman, and starts him on his transition. This strikes me as unlikely in the extreme; typically, such awareness reportedly starts in childhood. Yet, it is apparently in the historical record (making me wonder how accurate the supposedly true account of Lili Elbe actually is.) An even less likely detail in the play is that Gerte’s high heel shoes fit her husband’s feet, but at least Bixby tries to cover for this implausibility:

Einar: I can’t believe these fit

Grete: I have big feet. It has always annoyed me.

Einar: I love your feet.

In the scenes that follow, we see Einar become more and more enamored of his alternate identity; his increasing discomfort as a man; the attention that men pay to Einar when he dresses as Lili; his visits to unhelpful doctors who see him as sick and prescribe shock therapy, etc. Finally, Grete and Einar meet the doctor who accepts Einar’s own analysis, and agrees to pioneering sex reassignment surgery. Afterwards, Lili must adjust to her newfound notoriety, put up with her shunning by her former friends, navigate the new relationship with Grete.

In a note, the playwright writes “I have taken great liberties with many details in order to illuminate the internal and emotional lives of the characters that inhabit this play.” Several such illuminating scenes are the strongest in the play.

Yet the inclusion of some more of the concrete and fascinating historical details might have done much to erase an air of vagueness that occasionally attaches to the play. Left out of the account, for example, is Magnus Hirschfeld, who established the clinic where Einar had five operations to change into Lili. Hirschfeld was a pioneering sexologist, and a German Jew, who has been called  The Father of Transgenderism.

Then there are the five surgeries that Lili Elbe endured, the fifth of which – intended to enable her to have children – killed her in 1931. This is alluded to swiftly and vaguely in the play, in a scene between Grete and the dying Lili in the hospital. The focus of that scene is Grete reading from a book about butterflies, explaining the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly as “not one animal gradually changing shape” but “two different animals.”

Lili understands. “…the first one lives and dies…and the other emerges.”

“Sommerfugl,” we learn, is the Danish word for butterfly. In the very title, then, we are clued into an aesthetic that values poetic effect over clarity or history. But, then again, it is a lovely and memorable metaphor.

Inviolet at Fourth Street Theater
Written by Bixby Elliot
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Set Designer – Jason Sherwood
Costume Designer – Tilly Grimes
Lighting Designer – Zach Blane
Sound Designer – Stowe Nelson
Wig Designer- Natalie Loveland
Casting – Paul Davis, Calleri Casting
Production Stage Manager – Melanie Aponte
Assistant Director/Dramaturg- Tristan Powell
Dialect Coach- Katie Honaker
Cast: Wayne Wilcox (as Einar/Lili),  Aubyn Philabaum (as Grete),  Bernardo Cubria (as Claude,Rudolfo, and Dr. Steuben) Michelle David (as Anna, Kira, and Nurse).
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $18
Sommerfugl is scheduled to run through October 10.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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