When Pony (Ian-Meredythe Dehne Lindsey) shows up in a small town, in Sylvan Oswald’s “Pony,” he’s looking for a fresh start. But he has some secrets.
For one thing, he’s recently been incarcerated. For another, he’s a trans man – a fact of special potential danger for him in this rural setting.
But it turns out the locals have their own ghosts in “Pony,” the vivid and vital final play in the first season of the Portland Theater Festival. A much-needed theatrical beacon in representing Portland’s trans and queer community onstage, “Pony” runs through September 4 at Mechanics’ Hall, under the sensitive direction of Jess Barbagallo.
Things get fraught for Pony almost immediately. He falls for a charismatic but troubled waitress named Marie (Michela Micalizio), much to the ire of Marie’s best friend Stell (Megan Cross, smolderingly), who is herself in love with her.
Meanwhile, Pony regularly meets and clashes with his 50-something butch dyke social worker Cav (Diana Stokke, with wonderful laconic restraint) and is sought by another stranger, a mysterious young trans man named Heath (Sampson Spadafore, an ebullient beam of light in a pink-and-blue flamingo shirt).
But most engulfing for Pony is Marie’s obsession with the recent murder of a local woman by her boyfriend, and the lens of eroticized violence that colors much of her world. The stage is thus set for meditations on gender, sex, love, sexual and domestic violence, and identity itself.
This PTF production of “Pony” makes graceful minimalist use of the Mechanics’ Hall ballroom, with Peter Bloom and Connor Perry’s simple set of modular set pieces and a painting of an autumnal rural road. Lighting designer Seifallah Salotto-Cristobal’s oft-shifting, deeply saturated colors heighten the show’s true-crime/noir edge, while Sam Rapaport’s sound design offers an intermittent 1980s/90s pop soundtrack.
In one early scene, Marie sings along to Cyndi Lauper’s “Money Changes Everything,” and indeed, in “Pony,” money and class intersect crucially with issues of gender, sex, love, transphobia, geography, and self-worth. “Nobody belongs to anyone around here,” Stell warns Pony. “We work and we fuck and we get paid. Maybe.”
In fact, “Pony” is Oswald’s modern riff on Georg Büchner’s 1836 “Woyzeck,” about an economically struggling soldier who murders his unfaithful girlfriend, Marie. But “Pony” departs from “Woyzeck” in centering a woman’s perspective on domestic violence, as Marie engages in increasingly unsettling playacting to try to understand the mind of the murderer.
Oswald also modernizes “Woyzeck” in presenting transmasculine and queer experiences in an array of relations, which this fine cast makes rich and dynamic. These actors manifest their characters’ longings and wounds in beautifully various ways – from Stell’s fervid overtures and deflated retreats to the glints of stoic Cav’s ambivalence about never having “pushed” to use pronouns other than “she/her.”
Lindsey makes the central role of Pony a compelling mélange of rebel hero, seductive heartthrob, and vulnerable ingenu. Their Pony sometimes stalks around with a set jaw, haunted and bitter; sometimes reaches for Marie with a smile of sensual self-possession; and sometimes, startled by affection, gazes at her with pure, innocent sweetness.
And Micalizio’s incandescently complex Marie is certainly worthy of Pony’s fascination. A superb performer of physical comedy in previous works, Micalizio tempers Marie’s darkness with startling comic moments – a sudden and vertiginously luminous grin, a bit of soft-shoe-like shimmy – that quickly swerve dark again, leaving us as untethered and as entranced as Pony.
Micalizio also performs an indelible scene of puppetry in dialogue with a stuffed snake that Pony won for Marie at the fair, as Marie imagines a conversation with a boyfriend-murderer. In a remarkable wordless climax, Marie raises a box knife to the snake, registers a spasm of self-awareness, and then, stricken, kisses the snake and holds it close.
As Pony yearns to understand Marie, wars with Stell, gets impatient with Cav, and is exasperated by Heath, the show shifts often in style between lyric, lurid, comedic, and minimalist dirty-realist. This fragmented quality is echoed in its frequent jumps between short scenes, and by the many issues this play considers in intersection with class and gender, including generational contrasts in queer identity, the bureaucratization of mental health care, and consensual erotic violence.
“Pony” doesn’t entirely cohere or resolve all these issues and mysteries. But what glows strong through the fragments is the simple power of being known, accepted, and held.
It’s what everyone in this play longs for in some way, and it’s what this production seems to offer our community itself. I’m grateful to these theater artists, and to the Portland Theater Festival in its entirety, for giving us all a little more of what we need.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.