Opening Nights: The Adventures of Herculina

A 19th-century picaresque about a she who's really a he.

"I live in trees," a strange-looking orphan named Herculina (Meghan Derr) announces to clergy and fellow students on her first day of convent school in 19th-century France. Generally this would not be a prudent opening move for social advancement. But many rules of the mundane world do not apply to this proudly peculiar girl, and soon she is best friends and bedmates with Sara (Allison Strickland), the school's most popular girl.Their hot-cold, on-off relationship consumes the rest of the play as external forces, internal fears, and petty jealousies serially thwart their union. Anatomy quickly becomes destiny when a doctor diagnoses hermaphroditic Herculina as (physically) a boy. The now-male "Hercules" must figure out how to be a man, and how to do it well enough to win Sara.As opportunity whisks the beguiling Sara this way and that across the globe—as maid, nanny, mistress to other men—Hercules manages to keep running into her. Derr's endearingly odd, emphatic grimaces and comically scowling brow do double duty, distracting us from the improbability of these coincidences. In general, the fine cast outshines Kira Obolensky's script, which blooms and withers too many times to count. Rambling narrative is a common symptom of plays with titles that start "The Adventures of," but I found myself wanting a more sustained crescendo toward a climax (as in the thematically similar Hilary Swank movie, Boys Don't Cry).Instead, the story, based loosely on the diaries of Herculine Barbin (b. 1838), meanders toward a rather predictable confrontation. Dozens of vignette-ish scenes dissolve cinematically, but the unadorned burlap-colored set is the antithesis of cinematic. Some scenes are all action and interaction, while others just give vent to characters' interior thoughts. Many scenes evaporate without much consequence.That said, some characters (especially Mark Fullerton's gangly, toothy curé and socialite) are a joy to watch regardless of the context. Amélie-like pleasures are also to be had in such marginal details as a monsignor who eats chocolate to allay his loneliness and an abbess who worships and emulates Queen Victoria.

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