A Mature and Brilliant Journey into Transgender and Lesbian Struggles – “Twisted Deaths” at Phoenix Theater

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Photo by Tony Gao.

With Twisted Deaths, Shannon TL Kearns has written what may be the most masterful play to date about the transgender experience. Not to mention its rich insights into a lesbian relationship. And I mean right up there with the 2003 groundbreaker I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright.

Kearns of Minneapolis is beyond just having clever ideas for a play and he doesn’t just rant from a soapbox about transphobic injustice. He weaves real characters, real misunderstandings, and real flaws baked into our social and medical fabrics. This means that even though Twisted Deaths is queer in sensibility, its apprehension is universal.

At the Phoenix Theater director Ashley Hovell has brilliantly guided the superb Uprising Theatre acting ensemble to discover the play’s unique rhythms. Twisted Deaths is like an unspoken chamber symphony that ebbs, flows, and spirals in a way all its own.

Photo by Tony Gao.

When Kearns’s trans man protagonist, Ryan (a compelling Anthony Neuman), is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, he feels unsafe in letting it be known to others, except his loving wife, Melissa (an endearing Jamila Joiner). The insurance company cannot process that a man could actually have that sort of cancer.

Photo by Tony Gao.

Fate intercedes in an unlikely way when Ryan befriends an older conservative Christian woman, Pam (a profoundly touching Holly Windle), at a support session for cancer patients. What he doesn’t know at first is that Pam rejected her daughter for being a lesbian.

Photo by Tony Gao.

Interwoven into this primary connection between Ryan and Pam is the closeted nature of a hospital chaplain and the woman she is married to. A luminescent Kendra Alaura and a sharp-edged Julia Alvarez embody their turbulent intimate relationship vividly. Moreover, they convey Kearns’ organic inquiry into the ethical and moral codes of clergy and medicine.

Photo by Tony Gao.

Another major Kearns concern is how tribal and organizational groupthink militates against GLBT people among themselves. This invasively disrespectful approach is piercingly portrayed by Jeff A. Miller as Ryan’s trans activist pal, Jason. When good intentions turn self-righteous, and another’s free will is violated, it’s time to rethink one’s values.

Photo by Tony Gao.

A downside of the way playwriting has developed over the past generation is that verbose political stridency which may (or may not) be justifiable in its own right, replaces layered complex analysis of complex relationships. Queer drama often succumbs to shallow or crude denunciations of Christianity or cookie cutter Christian views like Tony Kushner’s in his Angel in America plays, wherein Mormonism could be just as well interchangeable with Catholicism or Presbyterianism, as if they’re all the same thing.

Photo by Tony Gao.

In welcome contrast, Kearns is a mature groundbreaking counterpoint. The interactions between Ryan and Pam are beautifully intricate in how Pam reveals that her evangelical anchoring is not necessarily the tyranny that it’s been propagandized to be. Ryan has to grapple with the theology, and in turn, Pam is impelled to examine her own strict codes in both gender and sexuality.

Jake Otto’s lighting vibrantly heightens and enhances the rhythmic quality of Kearns’s masterful dramatic structure.

Twisted Deaths
Through Apr. 28
Phoenix Theater, 2605 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

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