So how is it that a woman sees a single play at age 27 and is so inspired that she spends the next decade forging a career in the field?
The play itself certainly deserves some of the credit. Akalaitis's direction of Genet's script was a sprawling, unconfined, five-hour eruption of theatrical imagination that calls to mind the famous myth of the Velvet Underground--only a thousand people ever saw them play, but every one of them went out and formed a band. As is typical of Akalaitis, she crowded the stage with ideas and dazzling visuals, creating a production thick with atmosphere: Incense burned, Middle Eastern music played from a live band of men holding ouds and hiding their faces under shawls, and performers whose characters had died in the play skittered above the audience on a giant net. This was an immense vision of the possibilities of theater, and to somebody like Obolensky, who herself possesses an unconfined imagination, it was irresistible.
But beyond that, as evidenced by Obolensky's wildly varied résumé, this is a woman who develops sudden passions and pursues them with enormous energy, whether they be anecdotal histories of American garages, five-hour plays, or pierogi. And while Obolensky's plays are not autobiographical, a hint of this same spirit echoes through her work. In Lobster Alice the protagonist's life is utterly transformed, without his willing it, by his exposure to the limitless creativity of Salvador Dali. In reviewing the play for City Pages last fall, Peter Ritter wrote that the "floodgates of imagination and desire have burst"--a neat summation of Obolensky's own explosive creativity.
And that brings us to The Adventures of Herculina, a play about a young girl in a French convent who dreams of South America, and whose own life is transformed forever by a sudden, unexpected love, as well as by the revelation that she may in fact be a young man.
"The seeds of this play were sown in a weekend workshop with Paula Vogel," Obolensky explains. Vogel, a playwright known for wild, off-kilter comedies about incest (How I Learned to Drive) and AIDS (The Baltimore Waltz), had instructed participants to write a monologue from the point of view of a character of indeterminate gender. Afterward Obolensky looked into writing a fuller script based on the suggestion. "I was fascinated by this idea," she says. At first she looked into the life of an obscure doctor who performed sex-change operations in the 1940s, but her research eventually led her to the diaries of Herculine Barbin, a hermaphrodite who was declared female at her birth in France in 1838 but who, doctors later determined, was actually male. ("Apparently there was some confusion," Obolensky wryly notes in the introduction to her script.) "Reading this diary was so dramatic and theatrical," the playwright declares. "Plays start with questions, and this made me think about a lot of them."
Obolensky fictionalized the story, setting it in the Victorian period. "It was an era of classification, and ends of centuries are so interesting and perilous," she explains. "History gives you a wonderful window; I find it an interesting lens to examine many questions." Primary among these, she says, is this: "How do you love someone forever when you're constantly changing and your partner is constantly changing?"
Herculina, which had its premiere at Chicago's Next Theater last year, raises its questions in a manner reminiscent of a children's story: The script is filled with sullen boys, stern abbesses, and violent jugglers (not to mention a cameo appearance by Dame Sarah Bernhardt), in settings such as railroad yards and carnivals. The play is neither strident nor preachy. Instead it simply allows its narrative to grow curious--the characters often seem utterly bewildered by one another--and to encourage the curiosity of its audience. "It's a messy whirlwind," Obolensky sums up. "That whirling kind of innocence that gets corrupted quite terribly, and twists quite suddenly."
Obolensky describes an early production of the work, directed by the illustrious Christopher Durang, in which several of the female roles were played by a transgender performer who had previously been a man. "There is a scene where the performer played Sarah Bernhardt and had to teach Herculina how to kiss like a man, and the role of Herculina was also played by a man," she recounts. She's quiet for a moment, obviously deep in thought. "Think about how many questions that raised!" she says at last.