The second annual Chicago Fringe Festival continues through Sunday at five venues in Pilsen.
"No Gender Left Behind" ***
Rebecca Kling knows a teachable moment when she sees one. When the transgendered Kling was dismissed as a visiting theater teacher in suburban Chicago for being a "bringer of uncomfortable conversations," she said, she decided to take that conversation to the stage rather than the courthouse. As Kling points out in "No Gender Left Behind," her solo show at the Chicago Fringe Festival, Illinois is one of only 12 states where it's illegal to fire someone for being transgendered.
Kling reads disturbing excerpts from a study, "Injustice at Every Turn," released this year by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Gender Equality — such as the finding that 41 percent of transgendered people have attempted suicide. But the grim moments are leavened with monologues in which Kling imagines a world that mandates that "appropriate" gender roles be taught.
As a gruff gym teacher, Kling explains that "Boys don't complain — they drink. And girls don't complain — they develop eating disorders." Snippets of black-and-white "educational" films and vintage Barbie commercials demonstrate just how deeply ingrained our binary notions of gender and body image can be.
Kling performed in last year's inaugural Chicago Fringe Festival and has since taken her act on the road to other fringe festivals. I saw her perform a different solo last fall away from the festival circuit, "Trans Form," about her journey from being classified and raised male to being a transwoman. In less than a year, she's become a noticeably more assured performer. Indeed, the idea of being comfortable in public in one's real gender (rather than the one assigned at birth on the basis of genitalia) is a strong underpinning in this show. Kling talks about the irony that when she was identified as male, she could go topless on a beach — an act that is specifically forbidden for women in Illinois. "Now that I like my body, I have to cover up more of it, whether I want to or not," she observes — while topless on stage.
Not all of the segments fit together seamlessly, but for the most part, this show is a loose, charming, smart and unpreachy snapshot of what it means for all of us to live in a world where assumptions about gender cover up more than they reveal about who we truly are. And Kling is already making a difference: The festival organizers, apparently after hearing from audience members, now categorize gender choice on the audience survey as male, female or "other." "That's still so problematic," said Kling. "I think it should just be a blank line." But as she also notes, it's a step in the right direction — and another teachable moment.
"Nearly Naked" *
Melncolly Theatre Company is brand-new and needs a lot more seasoning before it's ready for prime time. Its original show, "Nearly Naked," was described in the fringe program as Clue meets "Rocky Horror Picture Show," set at a collegiate lingerie party. That suggests a high-spirited, sexy, goofy kitsch-fest. Instead, what we get is a dreary sub-"Jersey Shore" soap opera about hooking up and breaking up, interspersed with pointless dance sequences and with a seeming murder tossed in to raise the nonexistent dramatic stakes. The premise is unconvincing, the performances are broad and unfocused, and the whole thing is a rather dispiriting mess — but given that the Chicago Fringe Festival chooses its shows by lottery, a few duds are a fact of life.
"No Gender Left Behind" runs through Sunday at Human Thread Center, 645 W. 18th St.; "Nearly Naked" runs through Sunday at Dream Theater, 556 W. 18th St. Tickets are $10 per show, plus a $5 festival badge; 866-811-4111 or chicagofringe.org