(this review originally published on March 1st, 2012 on the website for the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance www.gvpta.ca)
I have never, ever, had an emotional reaction to a theater (or any art piece, or any movie, or book for that matter) as strong as the one I had to The Silicone Diaries. After the standing ovation finally died down (and it took awhile) I walked slowly out of the theater, afraid to speak because if I did the lump in my throat would dissolve and I’d lose it. It wasn’t until we were in the car that I let my guard down and began to cry, not even sure what I was crying for.
Nina Arsenault is a 30-something-year-old woman whose battle with her mind, her critics, and especially her body are laid bare in her one-woman show The Silicone Diaries. Written like a diary would read and performed as a diary would sound if read aloud by it’s author, The Silicone Diaries is an open book if ever I’ve witnessed one. Jason said he felt like he had watched a documentary, I felt like I had lived inside Nina’s heart, mind, blood, and silicone for an hour and 45 minutes.
While sometimes Nina’s delivery wasn’t as tight as her latex dress, her straight up emotion and personality was thoroughly engaging. I was on her side, fascinated by the content and was intrigued from start to finish.
The Silicone Diaries tells the story of a little girl who entered the world trapped inside the body of a boy. This little girl gazed upon the world of feminine beauty through a shroud of confusion and fear, with no outlet to functionally grow into the woman she was destined to become. In order to fund over 60 procedures that would “scrape the man from her face”, give her the fishy(sp?) figure of her dreams, and later the visage of a beauty icon, Nina worked as a web cam “girl” for the online porn industry. Once she had enough money, and enough connections through the men she met online, she began the long and painful process of changing…everything. Her hips (illegal silicone injections), her fundamental figure (rib reshaping), her face (jaw, nose, cheekbones, eyes, forehead – several times), and her hair (extensions sewn into a weave sewn into her own hair). She didn’t stop at looking like a “passable” woman, and she documented all of it.
Through photography and video (which was extremely captivating, well edited, and timed) played behind Nina between scenes, she showed us bits of who she was and what she looked like along the way. A little boy, a college kid, a man in a wig, a beautiful young woman, and finally a striking image of “the perfect woman” we met onstage. Big hair, small nose, big tits, small waist, big hips, phenomenal shoes.
I’ve said before that I picked my shows for the season as a blogger for the GVPTA based on dates, and because of this tactic I’ve seen some wonderful shows that I normally would not have attended. This piece however, I’m sure I would have seen in a heartbeat. 1) I LOVE The Cultch, especially the Historic Theatre. Just sitting in the seats before a show starts, I always feel like I’m in for something special. 2) I am a Fringe fanatic and so one-person shows are right up my alley 3) I am intrigued by stories of female sexuality and beauty ideals. I had no idea however, just how much I would be struck by this show.
At first, I said to Jason that I didn’t know why I was so emotional. I was moved by the intimacy and intensity of what Nina shared, but I’m a woman who was born into the right gender, as a white woman, in Canada. I was raised by feminist parents who did everything they could to make me feel safe and loved and special and beautiful. Why was this show and this woman and her story striking such a powerful chord? The more I thought about it and as we discussed the show and the topics it raised I realized I could relate, any woman could. Even though I had all the advantages as a girl, my body image is still fucked up. I still managed to have a mild and ridiculous case of bulimia in high school and as a 31 year old woman I still get uncomfortable when my boyfriend sees models on TV when I’m sitting on the couch beside him. As Nina said “What woman looks in the mirror and sees what’s really there?”
While I can empathize, I cannot begin to imagine how someone becomes a woman with not only no guidance, but an overwhelming sense of shame following her every move and experience. Shame at living a lie, and then shame at trying to live in the right kind of body, but never being “real” enough. It breaks my heart. And it broke my heart to watch a woman who has been through such physical and emotional pain bare it all, let us in, so far in I was astonished in the last scene at how far Nina took it, and us.
I am so, so, so glad that Nina is doing this show, and this work. Theater is sometimes meant to be a fun and funny romp, an outlet from the everyday. And sometimes it’s meant to shed light on topics foreign to the audience and to empower writers and performers to get their message to the masses. This show was full of messages I hope as many people as possible see and think about and talk about.
I wonder now if Nina the performer would give up everything she’s been through to just have been born a girl. As painful as her life has been it has developed her into so much more than a 36D-26-40 sized bombshell. She is a caring, smart, and funny woman. She is an artist.