Walking into Christina~Philippe in the Westbury Theatre, you are met with a gorgeous, imprecisely European set, dramatic lighting, and someone on stage in a dress opposite someone on stage wearing pants. Even though I knew better after my conversation with Kristi Hansen, I immediately and unwillingly thought okay, the one in the dress, that’s Christina and the one in the pants, that’s Philippe.
Of course, my immediate reaction was wrong, but it was a surprising example of how deeply ingrained various expectations of each gender are. Trevor Schmidt plays the role of Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, who feels most like himself in a dress, while Kristi Hansen’s character, Christina, Queen of Sweden, prefers wearing a hunting suit. And that’s just the beginning of the self-described “collage” of a show that Northern Light Theatre has transformed Christina~Philippe into as it closes it’s 39th season. The show runs until May 9 in the Westbury Theatre of the ATB Arts Barns.
It’s hard to describe exactly what Christina~Philippe is, although Trevor, Kristi and additional content creator/sound designer Darrin Hagen do a pretty good job in a metatheatre moment at the beginning of the show where they describe what the audience is about to experience: Per Brask’s 1985 script supplemented by musical numbers, clips from interviews with various people about gender expression and identity, and more metatheatre moments when the show’s action stops and a track of Trevor and Kristi discussing the script plays. It sounds like a lot, and it is a little overwhelming, but at the end of the show, I walked out seeing the world in a totally different way.
The situation, script, and the way Philippe and Christina behaved highlighted various actions or expectations of particular genders that are ingrained in Western society and put a magnifying glass to the things we see and experience every day. On my way home, I was looking at everything differently, through the lens of the gender I unconsciously associate it with. Even re-examining elements of my own life: how I act at my day job, how I act at home, how uncomfortable I used to feel in dresses, my commentary on the guests when I watch Big Brother… where did all those ideas come from? Before seeing Christina~Philippe, I think I had understood the gender spectrum intellectually, but the reactions the show created in me on a visceral level, make that concept a lot clearer and more personal. Christina~Philippe is all about the fluidity of the experience of gender – how each of us embody more than one gender throughout our lives and maybe lean more to one or the other or none at all at certain points in our life.
The disconnect between knowing the sex of the actors and seeing the different ways they were expressing their character’s gender (which more or less corresponded to the gender expectations we have now, although the character’s world is the 1600s), elevated those behaviours beyond internalized assumptions to scrutinized ones. Why is Christina sitting like that? Why is Philippe behaving so timidly? Why is Christina invading Philippe’s space? How is Philippe expressing his emotions differently than Christina? The costume design really added to this element of scrutiny as well. The costumes themselves seemed to be straight out of 17 century portraits and so the two characters were looking at each other and seeing a reflection of how they were “supposed” to present themselves, but the audience was looking at them as they wanted to present themselves, except that the features on their faces that defined them as their birth sex were enhanced. Kristi was wearing fake eyelashes and foundation that made her skin look like porcelain to enhance what Western society calls femininity. Trevor’s beard looked really thick and emphasized his male-ness, although in every other way he was presented as a typical image of a woman.
This emphasis on scrutinizing what it means to look or act as a woman/man carried through to the set design (by Adam Tsuyoshi Turnbull and Trevor Schmidt) as well. Christina~Philippe starts with a lot of aggression from Christina towards Philippe, and the stage seems to mirror that aggression. As with a lot of Northern Light Theatre shows, the playing space is in the middle of the room – with audiences on two sides, facing the stage and facing each other. This set-up feels very adversarial and as though they are on trial and that the audience is judging them, in addition to the judgement they have of each other. This idea of judgement is mirrored in some of the audio clips that are integrated into the piece, especially when the interview subjects are talking about their experiences expressing their gender in a society that still sees gender as something that’s binary, not a spectrum.
The interview clips were taken from conversations Kristi and Trevor had with people from a wide variety of backgrounds about their experience of gender in their day-to-day lives. These interview clips added a modern context to compare against the script and see how far society has come in understanding gender and how much further we still have to go. Those conversations also took me out of my own experience of trying to understand all the different ways gender was being expressed in Christina~Philippe and brought in yet another outside perspective about gender that layered on top of my own experience of gender. All of these different elements combined to construct a 360º look at the evolution of the experience of gender.
The other sound clips integrated into Christina~Philippe were between Trevor and Kristi at various points in the show where they stopped to talk about the script and what it was saying or implying. As far as I can tell, this is the first professional production of Christina~Philippe, which in our interview Kristi said was only a 15 page script. The script in and of itself seems raw, unfinished or maybe just dated and it takes some turns that seem incongruous with what other parts of the script were saying. While I had gut-wrenching what?! reactions to these parts of the script, it was really interesting to get the insight on these parts of the script directly from Kristi and Trevor, who have been immersed in this world for months.
It’s safe to say that Northern Light Theatre’s production of Christina~Philippe really opened my mind in a huge way to the ways gender is ingrained and internalized. There’s a lot of theatre on in Edmonton right now, but it’s a show that everyone should take the time to see. And let’s hope this isn’t the end of the road for this show – it definitely needs to be remounted, toured, or just generally made available for other audiences to experience.
Christina~Philippe runs until May 9 in the Westbury Theatre in the ATB Arts Barns.Tickets are $18.50 – $30.50 through Fringe Theatre Adventures. Northern Light Theatre has a number of special events during the run of Christina~Philippe, including two-for-one tickets on Tuesday, May 5, a post-show salon with special guests on May 6, and a talk-back with the actors and designers on May 7. Check out all of the events during the run on Northern Light Theatre’s website.