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Theater review: Orange Julius traces a trans man's family memories

Theater review: Orange Julius traces a trans man's family memories
Photograph: Sandra Coudert Graham

Basil Kreimendahl's excellent new play doesn't build the way a conventional drama does. Orange Julius is more pointillist than that: an out-of-order scattering of memories from one trans boy's life. In his parents' garage, Nut (Jess Barbagallo) flips through a photo album, flips through radio stations, flips through television channels (a war movie's always on somewhere). Orange Julius follows the same non-pattern, skipping forward and back through the ’80s and ’90s, alluding to moments from when Nut was 5 years old, then 20, then 7. No matter his age, he's always a bit uncertain how to behave with his father, Julius (Stephen Payne), whose service in Vietnam has left him with long-term side effects from Agent Orange, as well as a temper and a yawning vulnerability.

Scenes are sometimes only a few lines long. Nut's sister, Crimp (Irene Sofia Lucio), tells him a person can choke on his own tongue; “I slept with a pencil in my mouth for weeks,” Nut tells us. What does this have to do with the plot? Nothing! Aristotle would plotz: It’s totally extraneous. But Kreimendahl is the god in these details, creating a portrait of real family dynamics far more “realistic” than those in a dozen well-made plays. The discombobulated structure is part of that; chronology been fragmented by Nut's retrospective grief. This is the rare play about a child coming to grips with the damage he's done his parent, rather than the other way around. What good does “sequence” do when you're grappling with death, illness and unkindnesses that can't be unsaid?

Nut's mind is saturated with pop culture, for good and ill. Interstitial scenes in an imagined ’Nam (set designer Kate Noll conjures miracles from the Rattlestick stage) help Nut feel closer to his dad, but the imagery is all Platoon, since his father never actually talked about being “in the shit.” More damagingly, films and “special episodes” of TV make Nut mistrust his father's physical affection. So much is gained from touch in this family—a hug between Crimp and Nut,their mother France (the astonishing Mary Testa) massaging Julius's swollen legs—you realize what an awful loss that was between father and son.

Good memories of Nut's warm, loving and slightly shambolic family try to drown out the bad, but the bad—inevitably—keep winning. What's hidden and forgotten is as important as what’s revealed. We never learn when Nut stopped presenting as a girl, nor if it was a difficult transition. Somewhere there's a brother, but we never meet him. And in a staggering sequence, Julius goes to Washington to make a rubbing from the Vietnam War Memorial. Whose name was he looking for? “I never asked,” says Nut, as Barbagallo spreads his hands helplessly. Kreimendahl has referred to this as a personal and autobiographical play, which—having seen it—I find unbearably sad. Dustin Wills directs with an uncommonly intimate grip; the cast is superb, and the execution (particularly Palmer Hefferan's sound design) is confident and effortless. If these are Kreimendahl's own memories, it’s a blessing that such fragile things are being treated so tenderly.

Rattlestick Theater (see Off Broadway). By Basil Kreimendahl. Directed by Dustin Wills. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through Feb 12. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

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