He Said, She Said
Review by Sean McQuaid
There’s an old saw about writing what you know, and young local thespian Rory Starkman definitely walks that talk as the author/director/star of Just the Way It Is, one of the more intriguing entries in 2017’s Island Fringe Festival.
A self-described “non-binary” person who identifies as neither male nor female, Starkman plays Maddox, who was born a girl as Maggie (played in flashbacks and visions by Olivia King) but eventually evolved into the more masculine Maddox.
Starkman wrote the play, as the author’s self-penned program bio puts it, “to be seen and heard for the human being that I am” after years of hiding, and to promote compassion and understanding regarding gender-identity issues.
As a confessional and as a public service effort, the play works fairly well — it’s a gutsy, mostly unglamorous look at a lifelong struggle to define one’s self in a world where the kind of change Maddox undergoes tends to be confusing and difficult.
As drama, it’s a smidgen more hit-or-miss. While still sympathetic given the character’s inner struggle, Maddox is such an oft-obnoxious personality that it’s unclear what exactly Maddox’s preternaturally supportive girlfriend (played warmly yet somewhat stiffly by Justeann Hansen) sees in our protagonist, regardless of all the gender-related stuff.
The off-puttingly angry, abrasive Maddox personality is partly the script, and it’s partly the performance. Starkman has long had a knack for playing seething sorts prone to explosive outbursts. While it’s well acted here and believably motivated, Maddox’s anger is somewhat gratingly repetitive within the play — and it also feels a bit overly familiar coming from this particular actor.
King’s performance as Maggie is more interesting, more nuanced and — deliberately or not (I suspect not) — more appealing and sympathetically relatable than Starkman’s Maddox. King’s open, expressive face is fascinating, and her emotional range nails everything from awkward vulnerability and gnawing anxiety to playful whimsy and predatory menace.
If King’s Maggie semi-subversively steals the show, the rest of the supporting cast is more of a mixed bag. Morgan Wagner and Ash Arsenault each play multiple parts, but while Wagner is versatile and effective in that capacity, Arsenault is a genial yet tediously one-note presence.
The Charlottetown Firefighters Club isn’t an ideal theatrical venue — poor sight lines, stifling heat and lots of background noise — but adapting to odd spaces is a Fringe tradition, and Starkman’s company makes the best of it here in terms of projection and blocking. There are also flashes of inventive visual flair in the show’s props and physical action, producing memorable images such as a mummy-wrapped Maggie or a metaphorically-yet-visually sword-wielding Maddox.
Earnestly agenda-driven, this is not a perfect play — but there’s a lot of heart, brains and more than a few laughs in this story. It’s one of the more intelligent, unique entries in this year’s Fringe Festival, and a worthy addition to Starkman’s growing list of commendable Fringe credits.