At PuSh festival, hometown militants soliloquize

PuSh back time for strikers and strollers.

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Back in 1980, before the full portent of the Thatcher/Reagan ascendency had quite sunk in, Mother Demers had dared hope her own son might someday become prime minister. Just for laughs, Premier Charlie sketches in what he'd do as soon as he's elected -- bust trusts, turn over banking to the post office, enforce collective bargaining, withdraw from NATO, guarantee free post-secondary education, yadda, yadda.

All within the first 24 hours. Whereupon all investment capital would flee Canada the U.S. would invade. But wouldn't it be glorious while it lasted. So don't try to tell Charlie that "there's no such thing as society."

 I am Woman; hear me roar! Photo: Candelario Andrade

Antonette Rae is under no illusions, either, that society doesn't exist. But, instead of paychecks and pensions, she has experienced society mostly as a kicks and gashes, rapes and muggings, dehumanizing sneers, bureaucratic runarounds and groundless imprisonments. All because neither she nor society can quite square her somewhat hulking, masculine appearance with her more feminine spirit and bearing.

She's been decades struggling to fit these facets together, first as a husband and father in small-town Canada and then as a street-walking, drug-addicted Queen of the Night in East Vancouver. Finally, now in her 60's, she's emerged as a street poet with a searing story to tell. Her PuSh Fest performance Miss Understood at Granville Island's Performance Works, stitches a tapestry of her collected poems.

The play is as much a soliloquy as Leftovers. But, unlike Demers' monologue, Rae needs more than one body to speak her mind. In addition to her own towering, craggy and floridly tattooed form, she recruits a pair of young and lissome avatars, male and female (Austin Eckert and Starlise Waschuk, respectively), to convey the disparate aspects of her inner self. Under the direction of James Fagan Tait, their byplay is sensitively blocked out by choreographer Noam Gagnon.

But it is Rae's own words that propel the drama. By turns playful and punning or raw and braying, she projects the intractable poignancy of the transgendered dilemma. One of the most striking scenes is when she suddenly switches from a mincing lisp to a muscular snarl in defense of a transgender fellow-inmate threatened with a prison rape. For an instant we can grasp how she's not just a woman trapped in a man's body, but fully and simultaneously partaking in both genders.

Less accessible are the segments  where she tries to convey her fleeting sexual joys or the pain of the childhood traumas that underlie her gender confusion. But by the end of her 90 minute monologue, we've long since shed the cognitive dissonance of her appearance. With a hard-earned and wholly natural grace, she accepts our floral bouquets and our standing ovation.

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