Canada’s most celebrated transsexual peels back the layers. Photo by David Hawe.
The Silicone Diaries, the new one-woman show written and performed by self-proclaimed “most celebrated transsexual in Canada” Nina Arsenault currently being performed at Buddies’ cabaret space, is already a hit. The theatre announced an added performance before the show had even opened, tickets have been selling like hotcakes, and there’s already rumours of the Diaries coming back next season, this time in the more spacious “Chamber” section of the venue. That last tidbit is very welcome news for audience members; when we attended the jam-packed opening, “seating” choices were limited to standing room at the back, or cramming ourselves onto the room’s grand staircase. We opted for the latter, an experience so uncomfortable we couldn’t help but imagine, while Arsenault waxed poetic about the various illegal silicone injections into her ass and hips she had scored in Mexico, the more practical appeal of having a little extra cushion back there.
Arsenault aficionados will of course be aware that this is the second solo(ish) show the self-made woman has performed on the subject of herself. Last year’s Fringe featured the Sky Gilbert-penned Ladylike, a fictionalized version of Arsenault’s life. This time, the script is drawn from a column Arsenault used to have at fab Magazine detailing her transitioning process, meaning she’s stripped away the fictional element and committed to telling her own story, all of which sounds like a step in the right direction. And yet, although we seem to be promised a personal and provocative exploration of her life, persona, and sixty cosmetic surgeries, we couldn’t help leaving the theatre feeling like we’d only scratched the surface of Ms. Arsenault.
In terms of structure and content, Diaries has loads in common with Buddies’ last show, Neon Nightz. Both were directed by the Buddies’ Artistic Director of the moment, Nightz by outgoing David Oiye, Diaries by incoming Brendan Healy. Both are written and performed by former sex workers/local columnists (Nightz scribe Sasha Von Bon Bon’s “Love Bites” column was recently axed by Eye Weekly). Both illustrate their subject matter through a series of semi-related episodes and vignettes. And both, unfortunately, feature performances that you can’t help be reminded aren’t coming from professional actors. Like Von Bon Bon, Arsenault lacks the level of ease on the stage necessary for a great performance. Her physicality is often awkward and unnatural, she is prone to staring off into space, and she has a really hard time with her lines. And it’s a shame, because she’s a better writer than Gilbert, and when the show is coming from such a personal place, there’s every reason it should blow the uneven Ladylike out of the water. But it doesn’t. There are moments when she gets confident, and her ability to charm and tell a damn good story transcends the rest of the production and you feel like you’re being allowed to witness something special. Most of the time, however, the Diaries feels meandering, repetitive, and surprisingly superficial. One of the lengthiest sequences in the show describes Arsenault’s somewhat notorious encounter with well-endowed rocker and Pam’s ex-hubbie Tommy Lee. In Arsenault’s version of the story, the incident becomes a personal monument of her trans-validation and “realness,”—she gave Tommy Lee a boner! She’s as hot as a bio-woman!—but we couldn’t help finding the tale, well… sad and shallow. If a biological woman had plastic surgeried herself into Barbie doll and macked all over an aging, dubiously talented has-been rockstar, would she receive standing ovations at one of the city’s most respected theatres? Or, would she just be a contestant on Rock of Love Bus?
The Silicone Diaries runs until November 22.