Edited by Judith Rudakoff, 264 pp. Chicago: Intellect
Reviewed by Don Rubin (Canada)
The genius of real theatrical masters like Peter Brook and Richard Schechner is that even though they might spout nonsense from time to time, when it comes to the theatre they create magic does usually appear on the stage. The talk gets put away. It’s time for the work to emerge. But when you yourself are the work of art can real theatrical magic occur?
This is the essential question when dealing with Canadian actor Nina Arsenault, a male-born transgendered artist whose work over the last decade or so has been all about the notion of stage image, self-image and the transformation of image. What makes these important is that these are also concepts at the very root of theatre and so their exploration is has real potential for significance.
Trans(per)forming Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work is precisely that exploration. Put together by Canadian dramaturg and professor Judith Rudakoff, this study Arsenault’s life and work (the two are virtually inseparable) is a collection of essays by a range of commentators from theatrical and feminist scholars to workers in porn and teachers of performance. That said, the core of the volume is really the text of Arsenault’s one-person autobiographical show, The Silicone Diaries, which can be examined here both as theatre and metatheatre.
For Arsenault’s life is a piece of theatre, a piece of image-creation taking the young Rod Arsenault from youth as a shy young man trying to deal with being gay to the creation of Nina Arsenault, a still shy and not quite so young woman who through plastic surgery, botox and hundreds of injections of silicone makes Nina into the ultimate sterotypical image of western woman: a resurrected Mae West or Marilyn Monroe or Pamela Anderson or some mix of them all to create what can be called the ultimate Mannequin Monroe, a living cyborg which stands in front of us on the stage. Given the creation of such a blatant blonde portrait of femaleness, does one simply accept the image theatrically or does one respond to it in feminist terms? Does one buy what’s on offer or does one question the human being behind it, now himself living an altered life as an iconic female but one who refuses finally to give up his ultimate male appurtenance, the penis.
Transgendered by choice? Whose role is it anyway?
Arsenault as thinker and artist is certainly the most authentic and interesting voice in this book. And the script itself is rooted in profoundly theatrical notions starting with the core notion of self-image and ending with the notion of manufactured image thanks heavily here to the magic of silicone. Arsenault’s director, Brendan Healey, suggests in the play’s preface that it is through silicone that “we can transform ourselves into the avatars of our deepest interiors.” I wonder what Stanislavski would make of that notion.
Healey goes on to say that Arsenault has used silicone “to raise the pursuit of the “real fake” to metaphysical levels. In doing so, she “destabilizes the coherence and authenticity of identity….In her presence you can no longer tell where the artificial ends and the real begins, what is sacred and what is profane…the imaginary merges with the physical to create the ideal that is art.”
A good interpretation to be sure but is it really in the script? Or is it only in the performance when “Nina” stands before us? This text and the amazing compilation of full colour photosgraphs of Rod becoming Nina gives us an opportunity to judge for ourselves.
For me, the play – first performed in more or less its present incarnation at Toronto’s leading gay theatre, Buddies in Bad Times, in 2009 (with editor Rudakoff as its dramaturg) – is itself only about 20 pages long. Divided into seven scenes, each one relating to a different moment in Arsenault’s life, these “diaries” are presentational in style, offered directly by Arsenault to the viewer.
We begin with Arsenault as a five year old, seeing a department store mannequin “more beautiful than Barbie” and wondering if she is “real.” Reality, the central issue in the work, is seen through mannequins and magazines as Arsenault breathes the magic of the eroticized images and swears that he too will be one of those images when he grows up. Later Arsenault is drawn to the transgendered, to the shemale (a woman with a penis) and sets out to earn enough money to have the necessary operations.
After 13 hours of surgery and innumerable illegal injections of silicone to gain female hips and breasts, after numerous hair weaves, Arsenault recounts his new vision of self: “a highly stylized technicolor music video,” a creation which takes him through a medical castration as part of the journey to be “plastic,” to become “an imitation of an imitation of an idea of a woman.”
The play follows Arsenault’s determination to “live with beauty.” It is a theatrically bizarre, emotionally fascinating journey that we are taken on. But ultimately, the creation never quite comes to grips with the living conceit or the many questions about the self-constructedness of identity that it brings up. But perhaps that is asking too much. If it is true that the role of the artist is simply to bring up life’s most difficult questions and not necessarily to answer them, then Arsenault has achieved something important, has become the image and the artist he always wanted to be. Whether he has become the woman he always wanted to be, or even the image of the image of the woman he always wanted to be is still yet to be answered. And whether or not any of it makes human sense, that is far beyond the scope of what this play or this book is seeking to do.
In the end, the play is core text here and it is without doubt an infuriating and horrifically moving piece of theatre: a work of literally living art that has the potential to spark real debate wherever it is played. I wonder in the end if anyone else beside Arsenault could really do it, if another actor could ever embody such a provocative text? That may be the real theatrical question this book brings up.
 Don Rubin is the editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre and a Professor of Theatre at Toronto’s York University. He is the President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association.