'The Birth of Venus' is an emotional journey of transition

  • Article by: WILLIAM RANDALL BEARD , Special to the Star Tribune 
  • Updated: October 13, 2011 - 2:57 PM

REVIEW: In "The Birth of Venus," a woman seeking to become a man encounters heart-on-the-sleeve joy and pain.

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Shannon Troy Jones, Joe Swanson and Melanie Wehrmacher combine their talents to give “The Birth of Venus” a surprising finale.

Photo: Claire Avitabile,

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"The Birth of Venus" by Lisa Flora Meyers is a straightforward telling of transgender Betty's journey of transition. Meyers, a young writer, makes many of the mistakes endemic to beginning playwrights, but she is smart, with a unique voice and a well-honed sense of the twisted.

The production by 20% Theatre, currently running at the Cedar Riverside People's Center in Minneapolis, is strong and emotionally committed. It makes for a very satisfying evening of theater.

Betty, a transgender woman who wants to be an astronaut, goes to Ron, a nebbishy man who makes a living as a "face breaker," to alter her appearance, but, instead, he points her to Trish, a surgeon, to help her complete her transition.

Too often, Meyers relies on the crutch of having characters deliver monologues at the audience as a primary storytelling device. But these are fascinating characters, often saying compelling things. And there are some delightfully quirky and surprising plot developments, like the three forming a love triangle of sorts.

The play can become overly talky, abstract and incessantly intellectual, especially around the playwright's obsession with religion. But there are moments of real poetry, with heart-on-the-sleeve joy and pain. And she is able to capture the lovely silliness of romance. The ending is more complicated and genuine than I had expected.

The staging, by 20% artistic director Claire Avitabile and company member Nicole Wilder, is uncomplicated and effortless. There are no gimmicks, just emotional honesty. The design team -- M. Longo (sets), Katrina Knutson (paintings), Miles Bard (lighting) and Renate Shaffer-Gottshalk (costumes) -- works wonders in the confined space, especially creating magic with the rocket finale.

As Betty, Shannon Troy Jones is the emotional center of the production, imbuing both the male and female personas with deep humanity. Jones is fierce and committed, only rarely straying over-the-top.

It's hard to imagine Joe Swanson's Ron as a violent face-breaker. (The whole concept of that career is rather far-fetched.) But as a sweet, emotional, vulnerable puppy dog, he is endearing.

Melanie Wehrmacher gives Trish her own unique rhythm. She is sharp and tough, hard and caustic, with a dry wit. She makes a nice foil to the other two.

  • THE BIRTH OF VENUS

    Who: By Lisa Flora Meyers. Directed by Claire Avitabile and Nicole Wilder.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sun. and Oct. 10. Ends Oct. 23

    Where: Cedar Riverside People's Center, 425 20th Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $12-$20, 612-227-1188 or tickets@tctwentypercent.org.

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