The 3rd Gender, at the New York Fringe Festival, is advertised as a futuristic exploration of gender and sexuality. But what I actually saw was a dull anti-abortion lecture, full of clunky plot devices. Spoilers ahead...
Note: I am writing this review in a bar a block away from the theater, because I need a drink to recover from the “play” that I just experienced.
In The 3rd Gender, it’s 2397, and heteronormativity has been outlawed. The ideal human is the third gender — biological men born with female spirits, and vice-versa. People who are so unfortunate as to exist with “old school” gender preferences are seen as an “abomination,” and either eliminated pre-birth or subject to extensive conditioning in an attempt to force them to conform.
But what the play's promotional materials don't tell you is that the performance is an unrelenting hour-and-a-half diatribe against abortion. The production is so relentlessly anti-choice that I felt midway I was being subject to a fundamentalist Hell House designed to terrify the audience out of making their own reproductive decisions.
Naively expecting to see a play exploring gender norms — which the narrative attempts, with limited success and flashes of insight soon lost under the shrieking barrage of right-to-life talking points — I was not prepared for the proceedings. The premise seemed intriguing enough: Manten (yes, Manten) the protagonist, wakes up from his final shot at the new normativity — an operation on his brain that involved slicing up his hypothalamus. If this doesn’t work, he’ll be ‘eliminated.’
Since he's suffering from a near-total loss of memory, his caretakers and former friends fill him in on what he’s forgotten: centuries ago, humans evolved by realizing that the ancient, “barbaric” ways of "male-male" and "female-female" sexuality were undesirable (along with homosexuality, btw), and the truest form of spirit was incarnated in those who considered themselves ‘the third gender.” With solid dialogue and zen-like acting from the supporting cast, I was involved at the start, expecting a narrative with a science-fictional edge that flipped our own century’s often backward conceptions of sexuality on its head, by showing discrimination in its obverse.
But this thread is lost as soon as Manten escapes, with a desirable female-female in tow, “carrying” a secret with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Manten is off to discover the truth of his origins, via close encounters and psychic-tech flashbacks. Only what he uncovers is a relentless harangue on the subject of abortion that never lets up.
Three-quarters of The 3rd Gender is devoted to obsessing over the subject, which every character will take the time to tell you in excruciating detail. At first, when this was presented, I hoped that I was wrong, even if the first flashback of an ‘elimination’ contained a screaming woman and a brutally wielded futuristic glowing device recognizable as something that might be found in a 21st-century clinic. Surely this cannot be, I thought. A passing blow against a socially divisive issue opens a field of conversation, and that's playwright Peter Zachari’s prerogative. But he never moves past it. What could have been a young man’s search for self and embrace of his own outlawed sexuality will not relent on the theme. It only becomes increasingly histrionic and overblown with each passing scene.
The 3rd Gender seems to have been written by two people: one with interesting things to say about gender binaries, and the second who wants to do little else but picket outside Planned Parenthood. This all might be easier to swallow if Manten were at all sympathetic as a protagonist. The actor behind him, however, seems to have two modes: loud, and turned up past 11. It’s probably not his fault. He has been seriously misdirected, perhaps in an attempt to distinguish his manly “dude”-bro “hero” from the passive, feeble, truth-telling “third gender”-ers. As Manten stomps, screams, foams at the mouth (no, really, he does), and generally terrifies the rest of the cast with his rampant masculinity, I was tempted to beg him to use an indoor voice. I began to flinch every time Manten encountered a new idea that upset him — so, literally every moment past the opening scene, when he was blessedly more quiet because of brain damage.
The rest of the cast is as compelling as they can be, especially those trying hard with their neutered-of-emotion “3rd gender” roles. The production as a whole fits together well; the sound design evocative of a future age is excellent, and the actors, two-timing as crew, move the sparse but effective set of hospital bed, cages to denote imprisonment, and the futuristic graveyard ‘Golgotha’ (I know) of those who have passed or been ‘eliminated’ due the new standards on the planet.
My notes spiraled slowly out of control: I began the play scribbling down its suppositions about a world without heterosexuality: this new society of mixed gender spirits was ‘removing sexuality from the equation to focus on spirituality’ and only now considered their eternal souls and a sort of Scientology-level caste system that one had to ascend. Manten was diagnosed as “a primate male with masculine tendencies”.Then: “uh abortion politics???” Further down the program: “weird abortion politics,” I wrote, underlining it, still confused as to what I was witnessing.
The “plot” of The 3rd Gender is piecemeal at best. Manten quests to find his home and avenge the wrongs done to him for being a dude. It’s hard to care or follow along, because characters change their minds and characters at Manten’s noisy behest. Every scene seems to have a deus ex machina descend in it, until we grind along with the machinery. It finishes in a muddled mess of a forced ‘elimination,’ of course — a dumb chiding horror show I am ashamed to have seen.
In “the end,” I’m left wondering if the “play” ever wanted to talk openly about sexuality at all, or if in the snide, oft-unfeeling “third gender” it supposes, the message is supposed to be intolerance. Nothing is resolved, few of the many hanging plot points are mentioned again, and the curtain bows in the midst of unearned outrage.