Sara Ramirez
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A New Play Also Tells the Tale of Trans Pioneer Lili Elbe

Wayne Wilcox in Sommerfugl

Pictured: Wayne Wilcox in 'Sommerfugl'

A hit at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals this year, The Danish Girl stars Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, the first known to have undergone sex reassignment surgery. The film adaption of David Ebsershoff’s book of the same title focuses on artist Einar Magnus Andreas’ rather public transition to Lili Elbe in 1930, which was quite the media sensation. But it's not the only version of the story. Exploring the courage and strength required to transform, the world premiere of Bixby Elliot’s Sommerfugl at InViolet Theater in New York City allows theater audiences to glimpse inside the cocoon and witness a caterpillar become a butterfly.

In real life, Elbe passed away three months after her fourth and final surgery on September 13, 1931. This last surgery created a vagina, which allowed her to get legally married to a man if she wished to do so. Omitting this final chapter of Elbe’s real life, Elliot’s lovely but emotionally flat narrative is more akin to Ebershoff’s novel and its film adaptation than reality. This allows the work to be inspired by the true story that informs the play while incorporating elements that draw the audience more deeply the play’s three outwardly expressed stories of love: that of Einar/Lili and Grete, that of Lili and Claude, and that of Grete and Rudolfo. The introspective love Einar has for Lili is exposed as well, but not as compelling.

As the titular butterfly (sommerfugl), actor Wayne Wilcox offers a spellbinding performance that aptly charts the transformation of Einar Wegener to Lili Elbe. Identifying as a male, Einar dons a dress for a painting his wife Grete, is working on when a model is unable to attend her appointment. During this decidedly mundane and frivolous act of crossdressing, a spark is ignited. Grete compliments Einar on his beautiful hands and legs, Einar successfully fools others into believing he is a woman, and the audience sees him begin to explore a part of his identity that has previously laid dormant and unexpressed.

Aubyn Philabaum, Wayne Wilcox

Aubyn Philabaum (left) and Wayne Wilcox

Wilcox allows his Einar to flourish into a sprightly Lili. Comfortable presenting as a woman, Einar’s Lili comes to life as a social gem. She dances and charms men with abandon. But, she is also careful not to allow the men to come too close, rejecting physical displays of affection. In this confining and liminal existence between genders, Wilcox colors his portrayal of Einar/Lili with a sensitivity that endears both characters to the audience. Likewise, Aubyn Philabaum’s consistently loving and always accepting portrayal of Grete Wegener warms hearts with ease.

Unfortunately, because Elliot has written Grete to be unbelievably genial, neither Philabaum nor the director, Stephen Brackett, are given the chance to pump the room full of dramatic tension. Everything in Sommerfugl works to serve the notion that accepting one’s true self and allowing one to transform into one’s true self is essential. However, by removing strife and anguish from the equation, the play—and the ultimately the performances—whitewashes the complications and convolutions that give all queer people that strengthening mettle that colors each of our distinctive stories. After all, one must assume that Einar’s transition to Lili was more difficult than holding back kisses and finding a doctor who would perform the gender reassignment surgeries.

Ultimately, Sommerfugl is an inspiring and altogether beautiful transgender fairytale. From the nurse and doctor who aid in Einar’s transition to Lili, to his closest friends and wife, all parties in the play unquestioningly accept Lili and champion Einar’s successful transition. The world presented on Jason Sherwood’s brightly lit, fashion runway-like set is like an elegant design being paraded during New York Fashion Week. It only allows the audience to see the beauty of the experience. All frayed material, jagged edges, and flaws are tucked away, safety pinned out of sight, and hidden under a polished veneer.

Sommerfugl, through October 10 at NYTW’s 4th Street Theater, 83 E. 4th Street, New York City. InVioletTheater.com. Watch a video teaser below:

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