Gender bending has become a crowd-pleasing staple in contemporary pop culture and on New York stages, but “Sommerfugl” offers a sobering twist. The earnest drama, presented by InViolet Theater and written by Bixby Elliot, takes a historical tack, examining the first case of gender reassignment surgery (perhaps “realignment” is more accurate), performed on Einar Wegener/ Lili Elbe in Germany in 1930.
“Sommerfugl” is the Danish word for butterfly (Lili is from Denmark). If the overriding theme is the wondrous power of transformation, the work also examines finding the courage to embrace your true self, with faithful support from loved ones, against formidable odds.
Presented in a compact black-box style space at the 4th Street Theatre, there is no stage or proscenium to separate the audience from the action, which intensifies the immediacy. In the startling initial scene, where Einar (Wayne Wilcox) stands naked before us, raw and vulnerable, front row patrons can almost reach out and touch him. “I am like a deceiver,” he proclaims. “Like a person who owns merely the façade of his own house but who does not own what is inside.”
Timely fact-based drama about the first sex-change surgery
Jason Sherwood’s set, little more than a couple of chairs and some props, is purposefully bare bones.
Based on actual journals, letters, and news articles, the piece traces key moments in Einar’s bumpy journey to become Lili. We witness Einar don a dress for the first time in front of his wife Grete (Aubyn Philabaum, in a sensitive portrayal), a painter who has asked him to stand in after a female model cancels. It awakens long dormant, “pronounced feelings of femininity,” confirming that “nature has made a mistake.” Lili is born.
Before long, Lili starts making appearances at social gatherings and winning hearts. Claude, a devilish, debonair womanizer, is especially smitten with her.
But Lili is no whimsical parlor trick. After several failed bids for a cure (including electroshock therapy) and a suicide attempt, she finally finds a physician willing to perform experimental surgeries and provide hormone treatments. To her credit, Grete not only sticks by Lili’s side, but is the main engine behind her transformation. Regrettably, not all goes according to plan.
Stephen Brackett, who earned well-deserved kudos for directing “Buyer & Cellar,” has lent his light touch here. So gentle that I wished certain dramatic moments landed harder. The risks are great and the stakes are high; we know this on an intellectual level, but feel it less emotionally.
The highly appealing Wilcox (“The Normal Heart,” “Chaplin”) is well cast, portraying an astounding conversion from Einar to Lili, often inhabiting a precarious middle ground in between. He delivers a mesmerizing, understated performance that, just below the surface, churns with a heady mix of desire, hope, and pathos. Not for one moment does he veer into camp.
In multiple supporting roles, Bernardo Cubria and Michelle David add a refreshing shot of exuberance to the proceedings.
If the story of “Sommerfugl” sounds familiar, it might be because it’s the subject of the much buzzed-about film, “The Danish Girl,” starring Eddie Redmayne, set to hit US theaters in late November.
SOMMERFUGL | InViolet Theater Company at 4th Street Theatre, 83 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave. | Through Oct. 10: Mon., Wed.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m. | $18; inviolettheater.com | 85 mins., no intermission