Brandon Teena, the famously martyred female-to-male transgender whose life was the subject of the film Boys Don't Cry, would be very familiar with Walking the Dead. Keith Curran's fine script explores issues of gender, identity and conformity and is so packed with symbolism that it demands repeat viewings. It opens on what's either a memorial service or a group therapy session, with six characters brought together by the death of Veronica (Alison Hartson), who was in the process of becoming a man. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn her artist lover Maya (Vivian Vanderwerd) wasn't thrilled with Veronica's sex-change decision at first but grew to accept it and that Veronica (she soon starts walking around with a fake moustache and swigging booze straight from the bottle) would remain essentially the same person Maya fell in love with—just with a few fleshy body parts rearranged. Veronica is the personification of one of Maya's art pieces (Maya employs mannequin parts and melted dildos), a work-in-progress that also serves as the embodiment of the play's two central themes: that everyone is a living, breathing performance-art piece, but altering our "art" in response to criticism can be disastrous.
Veronica's biggest critic is, naturally, her mother, Dottie (Karen Chapin), who can barely comprehend her daughter's dykedom, much less wrap her head around the notion that her daughter wants to become her son. So she buys her daughter dresses as please-don't-do-this presents. Meanwhile, Veronica's friends Bobby (Patrick Hurley, fabulously bitchy) and Chess (Eric Eisenbrey) are having their own problems. Bobby rants against queer-culture stereotypes but has become one—the Self-Centered Alcoholic Judgmental Queen. Chess has never gotten over the traumatic double-suicide death of his parents nor discovering their bodies. But his soliloquy is Walking the Dead's most chuckle-worthy segment, revealing that he responded to that horror by naming his dog Mom & Dad and telling callers at his suicide-prevention hot line gig to just go right ahead and off themselves.
Walking the Dead is a bit disorienting at first—20 minutes in, I was still wondering where the story was, or if one would show up at all. It does, unfolding gradually, allowing the audience to absorb all the flashbacks, giving us time to figure out where everything fits in and how it all leads to an awful, inevitable conclusion. To most audiences, a lot of the play's don't-put-people-in-a-box points will ring familiar, but a nice twist is that it also fucks with the audience's own perceptions of the characters—as when two people who are absolutely, positively Gay Man and Lesbo Gal start feeling up each other in a mad flurry of exposed titties and ass cracks.
Yet the message is that nobody can be easily categorized—that our lives are a divine mixed-media assemblage of whatever we want to make them, driven home by Walking the Dead's final image of a lone spotlight shining down on a running kitchen blender, surrounded by such traditionally gender-specific items as hunting trophies, footballs, G.I. Joes, condoms, nail polish, Barbie dolls, vibrators and ironing boards. This was who Veronica was—who many of us are.
Walking the Dead at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. (except Jan. 30, 8 p.m.) Through Feb. 2. $12-$15. No one under 17 admitted.