Telling her story with grace and beauty: Lara Rae’s play Dragonfly tackles ‘gender odyssey’

By | March 15, 2019

A dragonfly, Wikipedia will tell you, will “undergo an incomplete metamorphosis with a series of nymphal stages from which the adult emerges.”

Which makes Dragonfly a fitting title for comedian and writer (and frequent CBC contributor) Lara Rae’s new play, which tells, with poetic grace, the story of her journey from a boyhood in Glasgow to her current life as a transgender woman in Winnipeg — and the many stages along the way.

The play, premiering in a Theatre Projects Manitoba production, is a sort of one-person autobiographical show with a distinct twist — there are two performers, and neither is Rae.

Eric Blais plays Them and Sarah Constible They — both facets of the playwright, neither distinctly male or female. They refer to themselves in the first person as they tell Rae’s life story, sometimes trading anecdotes, sometimes engaging in dialogue, sometimes prodding and fact-checking each other, sometimes taking on the roles of other people.

Dragonfly delves into dark territory, but is also laced with a dry, often black, humour. (Leif Norman/TPM)

It may all sound a bit high-concept — more so when you add in the fact their dialogue is presented in blank verse — but it’s surprisingly accessible, personal and moving.

Together, They and Them tell the story of Lara Rae’s beginnings as Al Rae, born male-bodied in 1960s Glasgow to a loving family, but a boy who continually has the sense of something amiss with the rigid definitions of gender around him, and a distinct connection with the feminine.

In what’s described as a “gender odyssey,” They and Them relate the broad strokes in Rae’s life as she moves toward her gender transition, going from Al to Lara.

Though Rae is probably best known for her standup work and as the co-founder of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Dragonfly is not a comedy — though it is at times very funny.

The blank verse that makes up the play’s dialogue is laced with a dry, often black, humour that shows Rae’s comic sensibilities and talents. (“I’m in my 20s now and I want to be an alcoholic writer. I make it halfway,” Them says at one point.) 

Dragonfly is given stylish flair by Hugh Conacher’s moody lighting design. (Leif Norman/TPM)

But it delves into dark territory, with harrowing accounts of sexual assault, the horror of AIDS, depression and substance abuse.

Through it all, it’s a wrenchingly personal, honest and open story, told through exquisitely poetic language (Rae’s love for words shines through).

Blais’ and Constible’s performances have an understated beauty — they sometimes seem on the surface like dispassionate observers of their own life, but there’s always a deep sense of real emotion at the core of the performances.

Rae’s writing is surprisingly economical but effective — in just 80 minutes, she covers a tremendous amount of territory, never bogging down in any one part of her life for too long, but neither glossing over anything.

Sarah Constible’s and Eric Blais’ performances have an understated beauty, with a deep sense of genuine emotion at their core. (Leif Norman/TPM)

Director Ardith Boxall keeps her production moving swiftly, and it’s given stylish flair by Hugh Conacher’s moody lighting design and Emma Hendrix’s subtle sound work.

Ultimately, though, Dragonfly is about more than just the details of Rae’s life story. It’s about how we construct and perceive gender, and how that can hide a person’s true identity not just from those around them, but even from themselves — and about emerging from that.

Dragonfly tells that challenging and rarely heard story with elegance.

Theatre Projects Manitoba’s production of Dragonfly runs at the Rachel Browne Theatre until March 24.