The headline in the October 21 New York Times, “Trump Administration Eyes Defining Transgender Out of Existence,” was bone-chilling. The administration wants to narrow the definition of gender to whatever sex was ascribed to you at birth based on your genitalia, with serious ramifications for the rights and protection of transgender people in law, education and health. (Donald Trump has already said he wants to ban them from the military.)
Not only does science tells us that sex is far more complex and varied than a simple binary definition, but the government’s proposal completely ignores a person’s right to define his or her own identity — or the possibility that identities might change over time. Reading the article, I couldn’t help remembering how gay and transgender people are treated in two of the nations that Trump favors most. In Russia, there’s widespread homophobia and little legal protection, “gay propaganda” is banned, and last month a gay couple returned to Denmark, where they had previously legally married, seeking asylum because of police persecution. In Saudi Arabia, gay and transgender people can face flogging, imprisonment or execution.
In this uncertain climate, Boulder’s Local Theater Company is to be applauded for its guts and timeliness in mounting the world premiere of Andrew Rosendorf’s Paper Cut, a play about a combat-hardened soldier, Kyle, who returns from Afghanistan wounded and mutilated; the title Paper Cut is obviously ironic. He is gay, has full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder, and is struggling to take up the threads of his everyday life. In the war zone, Kyle had struck up a tender relationship with another soldier, Chuck, one that Chuck wants to continue stateside.
Although it deals with the problems faced by returning veterans, and some of the scenes are set in Afghanistan, Paper Cut isn’t really a play about war — at least war isn’t front and center. The focus is more on Kyle’s personal struggle as a gay man, and the script makes it clear that his home life was difficult well before he went to war. A longstanding feud with his twin brother, whom he betrayed when both were very young, has never been resolved. Both suffered the rages of a bigoted father, himself a Vietnam vet and PTSD sufferer. So there’s considerable talk of the past, and whether Kyle can develop a new and loving relationship — something he’s trying to do through the cold portal of social media.
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Paper Cut was developed through Local’s April New Play Festival, an annual event that solicits original scripts for readings, with one of them chosen for a full production. It’s clearly a very personal work for playwright Rosendorf, but it still needs development. While nothing detracts from the genuine grief and isolation of many gay people, at this point we have heard a lot of narratives about family ostracism and dysfunction — and while on one level these never stop being relevant (and this play does take a new dramatic approach), the endless stream of sorrow, recrimination and memory-raiding can feel deadening. Some dialogue feels obvious or repetitive: You get two-person scene after two-person scene — four male voices of a similar cadence and pitch, talking endlessly, with almost no sense of forward movement. Some of the problem is structural, and some stems from Pesha Rudnick’s thoughtful but slow-paced direction.
Sommer Carbuccia, who plays Kyle, is an amputee, a fact that energizes the production. Carbuccia gives a sincere and intelligent performance and displays admirable intensity during moments of high drama; at other times, more quiet intensity would be welcome. The liveliest scenes are between Carbuccia and Zachary Andrews as goofy and convincingly military-man Chuck, in large part because there’s something actually happening between the two of them, as well as genuine humor. Eddie Sanchez is appealing as Kyle’s brother, and the evening springs to vivid life every time John Hauser, who plays Harry, the shallow kid Kyle tries to date, shows up.
In these scenes, Paper Cut shows promise...but given today’s headlines, it could use more fierceness and more guts.
Paper Cut, presented by Local Theater Company through November 11, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 303-444-7328, localtheatercompany.org.