The future of playwright Peter Zachari’s New York Fringe offering The 3rd Gender promises all kinds of high-tech wonders: ray-guys, body-synced super-smartphones, and talking holograms. Just one catch – if prenatal tests indicate you are not going to be born into the elite sexual class – called the “3rd Gender” – the doctors will use a creepy glowing abortion crystal to terminate you in utero. Zachari also directs this daring production with a keen ear for persuasive future jargon and an eye for credible sci-fi embellishments, both of which prove helpful as The 3rd Gender admirably reaches for, but often fails to grasp, a higher rung of social commentary.
The 3rd Gender centers on Manten, a twenty something young man played by J.P. Serret who awakens on a futuristic operating table after a surgery to adjust his internal gender, so that he is a man on the outside who identifies as a female on the inside. This persuasion and its opposite (outwardly female but inwardly male) comprise the titular 3rd Gender, who also serves as the ruling class of this oppressive future. Manten has no memory of his life before the surgery, but he is told that he’s lived at this special facility all his life. Every once and a while, he learns, a non-3rd Gender child is accidentally born. These reject “heteronormative” kids are sent off to facilities like this for intensive gender therapy and eventually surgery to help them achieve 3rd Gender status. But I should pause here: as described by the facility’s Dr. Tulkan (played icily by Marc Gellar), the so-called 3rd Gender is more of a spiritual progression than a biological state, with different tiers of accomplishment not unlike the Kabbalah. Religion, sexuality, gender – Zachari laces together a host of exceedingly interesting concepts here, giving the idea of this so-called 3rd Gender a potent social charge, but over the course of the play, exactly what this distinction means and what our takeaway about modern society should be become a little muddy.
The confusion begins when two skimpily clad specimens are trotted out to “test” if Manten’s procedure was a success. One is a ripped male (though internally female) named Phoenix and one is a gorgeous female (and internally female) named Cassie. If Manten is attracted to Phoenix (Jacob R. Thompson), it signifies that he has been “cured” of his heteronormative condition. But if he is more into Cassie (Lara Clear), the doctors will assume that he is still governed by “primitive” instincts and, a yeoman’s effort made, they will put Manten to death. Needless to say, the treatment didn’t work, and Manten and Cassie manage to escape the facility before he is to be terminated. Here’s where I am confused – we learn later that Dr. Tulkan is married and has fathered children. Outwardly male, inwardly female, he had intercourse with someone who was outwardly female and inwardly male and sired children. This male/female and female/male match is considered normal in the eyes of the 3rd Gender. Yet, when testing to see if Manten’s status was corrected, they are routing for him to be attracted to Phoenix, someone who is outwardly male and inwardly female. Later, when Phoenix ends up with another male/female named Grey, they too have to go on the lamb because their love is also forbidden. I guess my question is who are the 3rd Gender oppressing here? Forget how much this confuses the story; Zachari seems to have something to say on the subject of gender and sexual persuasion, but by so loosely defining what the 3rd Gender is and what they think Manten should be, his point becomes difficult to discern.
As Cassie and Manten wander through this complicated future landscape, evoked compellingly by Mark Marcante’s restrained brushed metal scenic design, they encounter Manten’s birth mother, played buoyantly by Karen Lynn Gorney. After a couple of narrow escapes and some soul searching in a slickly designed cemetery, Manten again finds himself face to face Dr. Tulkan. The revelations and reversals are a little textbook – surprise pregnancy! Someone is someone’s father! – but Serret, who commits deeply to the emotional journey of his character, and the rest of the cast handle them commendably. But the messaging at the ending of the piece feels a little mixed up as well. After grieving deeply at the graves of all of his brothers and sisters who were aborted for not being of the 3rd Gender, Manten makes up his mind to confront Dr. Tulkan. The play ends with yet another abortion – a violent piece of business that ends up terminating an unlikely 3rd Gender fetus sired by two non-3rd Genders. Tulkan and his staff, who have terminated countless pregnancies before, are devastated at this prospect. Blackout. No curtain call. The sounds of an infant’s heartbeat over the speakers as you leave the theater.
I do not know Peter Zachari personally, but outside the theater I happened to overhear a friend of his venting about another critic who had called the show “anti-abortion,” so I feel comfortable in assuming that the point Zachari wanted to make was about gender identity and sexuality. The notion that non-3rd Gender pregnancies are aborted was surely intended to represent just another cruelty against heteronormatives, but the pro-life timbre of ending is unmistakable – like one of those evangelical “hell houses” or something. It almost seems like another hot button issue snuck into Zachari’s narrative about gender identity and then, amazingly, ran away with it.
And yet I really don’t want to harp too much on a play like The 3rd Gender, which is far more ambitious than it has business being. I truly enjoyed its polished staging and slick aesthetic a great deal, and when you come right down to it I guess I’m more fascinated by its messiness than turned off by it.
Presented by Zachari Productions as part of the New York International Fringe Festival at The Connelly Theater.