As you enter the Westbury Theatre—as you choose which side of alleyway seating that brackets its runway set complete with chandeliers—the two principle figures of Christina / Philippe are already onstage, wandering about, shooting you looks. One’s adorned in muskateer-ish duds, looking set to engage in some sort of swashbuckling derring-do; the other sports a court-princess dress and an elegant fan for the heat. But actually placing the two—which is Christina? Philippe?—proves more complicated. The one in the dress sports a tighly trimmed beard (Trevor Schmidt), while the one in the musketeer-ish costume (Kristi Hansen) sports just as much makeup.
And it’s that non-binary sentiment that guides Christina / Philippe, NLT’s season ender in a season of gender-based discussions through theatre. The show’s anchored by a very brief script Schmidt found, an imagined conversation between Christina, Queen of Sweden and Philippe I, Duke of Orléans that playwright Per Brask agreed to expand from the fragment for this production.
This is, it quickly becomes apparent, meta theatre. One of the first things we hear is a voice-over of Schmidt discussing what, exactly, the structure of the show is. Much like in its subject matter, which seeks to break down conventional thoughts of gender paradigms, Schmidt—who also directs—has done away with lots of theatrical conventions to present something more layered and complex. Christina / Philippe is capable of splitting into comment and conversation about itself when need be, as well as drawing on supplemental content: we hear myriad interview excerpts of people discussing gender, from epiphanies they had about their own identity to moments when they realized how rigidly (and falsely) the world categorizes it. There are recordings of Hansen and Schmidt discussing the script, too, what to do with particularly difficult sequences, or, in one hilarious case, a particularly troublesome line of dialogue.
That supplemental content and meta layering mark out the show’s greatest strengths; curiously, it’s the spinal narrative, of the two title figures, that proves the weakest component, namely because it there feel like enough of it. Brevity prevents much in the way of depth coming through: the duo pose questions to each other, threaten each other, debate the merits of what a relationship between the two of them would be, but it feels abridged. There are songs too, courtesy of Darrin Hagen, that offer more emotional nuance than the script around them, but a few of them feel like they’re trying to fill the place of a smoother dramatic arc.
Still, whatever that base script lacks, Christina / Philippe stands as one of the most curious theatrical exercises you could see, and a deft overview of a vital conversation. It doesn’t aim to find a definitive answer to how we define gender, or why; instead, it lets you contextualize the question, in doing so showing how rich and varied the answers can be.
Until Sat, May 9 (7:30 pm; 11:30 pm on Fri, May 8)
Directed by Trevor Schmidt
ATB Financial Arts Barns, $18.50 – $30.50