By Nina Arsenault. Directed by Brendan Healy. A Buddies in Bad Times Theatre production presented by the Cultch. At the Cultch on Tuesday, February 14. Continues until February 25.
The Silicone Diaries is a series of monologues by transsexual writer and artist Nina Arsenault, about her lifelong obsession and pursuit of feminine beauty. The hour and forty-five minute show starts with low lights and fog, as Arsenault slowly crawls onto the stage on all fours. It’s hard to take your eyes away from the stage beyond this point, as Arsenault is a striking vision wrapped in skintight, see-through PVC topped with wavy brunette hair that would put a L’Oreal ad to shame.
The staging is tastefully sparse, a simple white circular stage with a transparent plastic stool and a small white table with a water bottle. Behind Arsenault, pictures and video clips on a projection screen contextualizes what we’re seeing: the beginning, the end, and the long journey in between. The first act is in 1977, as Arsenault recounts a memory of herself as a boy called Rodney, staring at a female mannequin in Zellers.
“She was so beautiful,” Arsenault recalls. “But I didn’t like that she had the word ‘man’ in her name.” It wasn’t until 22 years later, when Arsenault acted on her desire to become the vision that had entranced her: perfect, plastic, and beautiful.
Arsenault goes on to tell more stories, snapshots from particular years in her life that were flashpoints during her transition from a biological male to transsexual female. Because Arsenault is so visually striking, there is no need for much more. While each stage of her transformation is highly stylized, punctuated by bursts of near-stand up comedy humour and dramatic monologues, the rawness of her experiences seep through the structure. Arsenault is a skilled storyteller, and her natural stage presence made me feel as if I could just as well be listening to her stories over coffee on Main Street. However, from my seat on the balcony of the Cultch, I had to strain at times to hear her clearly.
While at some points the stories meander and become too tangential, Arsenault manages to reel back the audience’s attention with some zingers, such as this one about her attractive plastic surgeon in Guadalajara, Mexico: “I said to him, ‘make me look like someone you’d fuck.’”
The one operation Arsenault almost gleefully admits she’s never done: a penectomy. When asked in interviews why she kept her penis, she shrugs it off. “My boyfriend likes it,” she said in an interview with Xtra. Indeed, Arsenault isn’t interested in colouring within the lines of familiar trans narratives, or simply outlining her transition from male to female. Diaries is also a critical reflection on the commercialization of beauty norms, and the constructed nature of femininity in North American pop culture.
“Literal objects have been made out of women’s bodies, whether it be on billboards or magazines.” Arsenault said in an interview over the phone, a few days before her first Diaries performance in Vancouver.
Arsenault isn’t shy to point out during her performance and in interviews that she has two graduate degrees, and has taught critical sexuality to undergraduate students at York University. She also insists that her show isn’t intended to persuade anyone to accept her ideal of beauty. Over the phone, I asked Arsenault how she defines beauty. For her, there were two types: inner and outer beauty. Her definition of outer beauty is apparent through her appearance– a work in progress that she celebrates and exhibits through Diaries. Then, she addressed inner beauty.
“Inner beauty is about having faced your own darkness,” she said. “A fighting spirit is something that I’d definitely consider beautiful.”
On many counts, Arsenault’s Diaries gives the audience glimpses of both. While her outer beauty ideal is explicit on stage, her inner beauty ideal also shows through her storytelling. The candid discussion of her most triumphant moments are also tinged with self-deprecating humour and intelligence. For example, when she talks about her encounter with rocker Tommy Lee, she recounts gleefully the whisper-chain about her ‘secret’ that makes its way down the table where she and Lee are seated (or more accurately, where she’s seated on Lee’s lap). “I was aware that I gave him a physiological reaction to the idea of a woman,” she says in the performance. It’s moments like these, among others, that makes Diaries a stand out act, beyond the fog, lights, and projections.