It’s New Year’s Eve in Rotterdam, and Alice (Miranda Wynne) is agonizing over a drafted email she has been meaning to send for a long time—an email in which she finally tells her parents she’s a lesbian. This is a long overdue revelation given that she has spent the past seven years living with her girlfriend, Fiona (Ashley Romans). But at the last minute, Fiona drops her own bombshell that obliterates the progress Alice has made in coming to terms with her own identity—Fiona is transgender, and wants to explore the possibility of finally living as a man.
Rotterdam, written by Jon Brittain, is currently in its west coast premiere at the Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles after a world premiere two years ago that won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. The story could not feel more timely or prescient, and the production, directed by Michael A. Shepperd, is a fantastic achievement, exploring complex issues rarely seen in media with honesty and sensitivity.
The story contains only four characters, which is refreshingly concise, as each is crucial to the story and the development of the core relationship. Alice is an anxious person, the type to avoid difficult decisions at all costs, which is why she is still in Rotterdam seven years after moving there for a job despite hating the city. Fiona, who goes by Adrian after transitioning, is in many ways Alice’s opposite—raised in a very liberal family, he has always gone through life with confidence, at least until now. As Adrian struggles to reestablish an identity and place in the world, unsure of what is next, Alice steps out of her shell for the first time. She develops a charged friendship with a coworker, Lelani (Audrey Cain), a carefree, 21-year-old lesbian who loves nightlife about as much she loathes responsibilities. Rounding out the cast is Josh (Ryan Brophy), who is not only Fiona’s brother, but Alice’s ex-boyfriend. Yes, Alice initially moved to Rotterdam with Josh, only to fall for his sister. The two have remained close, and Josh still carries an obvious torch for Alice. He is also the most immediately supportive of Fiona’s decision to transition.
The most refreshing thing about Brittain’s writing is something that should be a given, but is actually quite rare in theatre—the characters have conversations as real people would. There is no unnecessary exposition and no sense of “staging.” Instead, they simply walk into a room and talk about only what is organic, trusting that the audience will catch up as needed. For example, in the first scene Josh and Fiona have together, we see them shopping for groceries and discussing how Alice still hasn’t come out to her parents, and it’s only towards the end of the scene that we learn in dialogue they are brother and sister. Similarly, act two, which takes place four months after act one, opens on Adrian and Alice rattled by a confrontation they had on the subway, and it isn’t until the details become relevant to their ensuing argument that we discover what happened.
Shepperd’s direction is smart and dramatic, accentuating the transitions between scenes with techno music and movements where the actors pause to pose and look out into the audience or manipulate a set piece in a deliberate, choreographed way. The cast is doing extraordinary work all around. Romans undoubtedly has the most depth to mine as Fiona/Adrian, and the nuances of her performance are expert. She is devastating in act two when Adrian’s still fragile existence takes a catastrophic blow, as well as buoyant in early scenes as Fiona. Wynne has less flashy material, but as the connecting thread for the three other characters is arguably the lead. In lesser hands it would be easy to see Alice as almost the villain of the piece—she has at one point or another broken the heart of everyone in the play, and some of her actions flirt with selfishness. While her struggle may pale in comparison to Adrian’s, Wynne makes it easy to see where Alice is coming from. Her girlfriend choosing to live as a man makes her question not only if the relationship is still right but also her own identity as a lesbian, an identity she has yet to fully embrace.
Cain is often the comic relief of the piece as Lelani, playing an exaggerated Dutch accent for laughs, but her character is crucial to Alice’s journey. As Josh, Brophy makes a meal out of what is on paper the most understated role. He is a character who could very easily become a convenient sounding board, but Brophy finds so many layers and so much history in his scenes with both Wynne and Romans, making Josh as important a piece of the puzzle as anyone else.
Sometimes when a play is so very good you cannot help but fear the ending will somehow dampen it. While there were certainly several far less good routes the story plausibly could have taken, the ending Brittain chose is quite perfect, managing to be hopeful without undermining the messiness of the situation. Rotterdam has no heroes and no villains, just people doing their best in a difficult situation. It is a play that will not only make you think, but teach you about life experiences and identities you may not share, at a time in the world when understanding others and showing compassion feels so critical. Don’t miss it.
Rotterdam runs at the Skylight Theatre in Hollywood through December 11th. Performances are at 8:30pm Fridays and Saturdays, 2pm Sundays, and 8pm Mondays. The running time is two hours with one intermission. Tickets are $41 and can be purchased here.