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Williamstown Audio-Play About Sexual Transitioning Enlightening But Overloaded

Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club
Williamstown Theatre Festival

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. – It must be some sort of reviewer’s jinx that the play in a season you are most looking forward to experiencing is often the most disappointing.

Well, it struck again.

“Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club,” the fourth play on the Williamstown Theatre Festival Audio season appeared to be a type of play that could inform, enlighten and entertain.   In other words, it looked like the entire package. 

Instead, it’s an uninterrupted hour and forty-four minutes of bits and pieces.   It includes some very thoughtful and caring moments, but by including many wider-ranging political ideas it dilutes the emotional power of the piece. 

“…. Butterfly Club” is about seven transgender women who stay at the Chonburi Hotel in Thailand while undergoing gender confirmation surgery.  The women are from all points of the globe and in various stages of their surgeries.   

Needless to say, they bond, comfort and educate each other while they prepare to leave their male bodies, which for them served as uncomfortable cocoons.

There are additional characters – a caring nurse, an older wise couple, a karaoke-loving bellhop and a heart-of-gold male sex worker who also works as a kick boxer.   The reason they exist is to introduce a perspective that is outside those of the patients.

You might expect that in an audio-play a cast of 13 might clutter the experience and make it difficult to keep track of the many characters.   Thanks to the sensible direction of Laura Savia and the skill of the performers creating distinctive characters, this is not a problem.  Instead, the clutter comes from the playwright wanting to put too much in the play.  

The personal issues of acceptance or lack of acceptance work well.  Almost all of the characters have brought someone with them – a loved one, a spouse and even a child.  They add texture to the feelings of joy and anxiety expressed by those transitioning. 

Indeed, when the play focuses on personal fears and doubts it is everything you might hope for in a play about an outsider finding comfort from a group of like-minded companions.

The work centers about Kina, the newcomer to the group.  She arrives tall, tattooed and with a shaved head.   Her aloof attitude signals an “I want to be alone” message to the group.  It ultimately shatters as Kina finds herself overwhelmed by the experience and in need of support from strangers who quickly become family.

I suspect that this is the play Nayfack needed to write.  It is based on her own personal experience of transitioning from male to female at a Thailand Hotel.  In the audio-play Nayfack also plays Kina.

The play Nayfack needed to write is lovely.  The play she eventually did write is less so.   The large cast avoids the clutter but the peripheral issues that Nayfack includes does not. 

It is worth noting that the cast of a play about seven women who are sexually transitioning is performed by seven actors who have sexually transitioned.   Also, two of the six cis roles are performed by transitioned actors.  This has to add an emotional honesty to the work.

In her notes, the playwright says the play is about “what it means to be an independent woman.”    She tries to emphasize the plight of the transgendered through the theme of world-wide political boundaries.    Introducing the military coup of Thailand, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States makes the theme heavy-handed.  Too, adding environmental concerns, the plight of cancer victims, and the loss of a long-term companion overloads and clouds the points she wants to make.

The same can be said about the information she offers about the process of the operation.  The pain, physical and emotional, of the surgery and the challenges of post-op are enlightening and it is information the public should be aware of.  But often it becomes clinical rather than theatrical in the offering. 

And too, the casual way the women discuss their private parts in conversation is probably natural for the participants.  But when heard in an audio, you find yourself looking around in fear that the vernacular descriptions are not appropriate for all who might be in the room.

“Chonburi International Hotel and Butterfly Club” is a world premiere of a provocative play about an important contemporary issue; but it has a need to improve.  It will if playwright Nayfack is willing to listen to the theater adage  “Less is more.”

It is available through Audio productions by going to the Williamstown Theatre Festival website wtfestival.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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