A Tender and Comic Look At Gender, Death and Vietnam
Jan 24, 2017
“Orange Julius,” playing through Feb. 12 at Rattlestick Playwrights’ Theater, deepens its scope with every line as it fearlessly explores gender, death and memory. The memory play, narrated by a genderqueer child named Nut, focuses primarily on their family and father Julius, a Vietnam War veteran. Throughout the play, viewers relive Julius’ war memories.
Nut’s masculinity is presented without comment for the first several scenes of the play, and their relationship with their father fulfills many typical father-son tropes, like going fishing together and learning martial arts. When Nut’s sister and mother begin to use feminine pronouns to refer to them, it calls into question the audience’s assumptions about the character, forcing a re-evaluation of the entire play.
The memory play device does a great deal of work to give this reveal of pronouns greater impact, as Nut is dressed throughout in a man’s shirt and pants, with a short haircut. When Nut’s sister Crimp offers to crimp their hair, the audience’s emotional response matches Nut’s: this seems like stereotypically feminine behavior, which doesn’t match the Nut we know at all.
Nut’s transmasculinity is implicitly related to their interest in Vietnam and their father’s experiences in the war. In numerous scenes, they play with the ideas of past lives and the occult. During flashbacks, Nut becomes a soldier alongside their father and a third soldier, called Ol’ Boy. The trio is loud, violent, juvenile and bonds in a way that makes Nut’s envy of their father almost understandable. The terror of war is emphasized in the continued effects of Agent Orange–a U.S. chemical warfare campaign–on Julius and the play’s events. But war also offers the male bonding that Nut craves throughout.
Nut’s conflicted understanding of what makes a man and a masculine experience produces some of the most interesting moments of the play and some of the best moments of reflection afterwards. Furthermore, Nut’s identity is rarely explicitly questioned by their family. Aside from some early comments and the family’s misgendering of the younger Nut, Nut’s journey is primarily their own, and the familial strife that usually mars the search for gender identity is missing. Rather, we see an older Nut visiting a gay bar with their sister in a moving display of familial solidarity. By removing the most stereotypical aspect of the queer experience and letting their gender identity hover in the background of an otherwise rich story, playwright Basil Kreimendahl makes Nut’s journey truly unique.
The play also extensively explores the topic of death. The ultimate focus of the play is Julius’ deterioration and terminal illness. His dementia blues the boundaries of reality as the play moves rapidly from fishing in Vietnam, to fishing with a younger Nut and attempting to fish in his own backyard. The juxtaposition of his deterioration and memories from his life gives the play a depth that may occasionally trip into sentimentality, but remains moving nonetheless. Kreimendahl has undoubtedly achieved something unique and well worth seeing in “Orange Julius.”
Email Michael Landes at [email protected].