New Play “Pony” Focuses on Realistic Portrayals of Transgender People

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Kian Johnson as Heath (left), AJ Davenport as Cav (top right), Fenner Frank Merlick as Pony (bottom center), and Julie Kuwabara as Marie (bottom right). Photo by Ben Krantz.

Even in our liberal Bay Area bubble in 2022, it is still shockingly rare to see realistic portrayals of the lived experiences of transgender people. That is one of several things that sets Pony, a new play by Sylvan Oswald, apart. With not only one, but three transgender characters who are different ages and from different backgrounds, the play explores a wide array of themes around gender identity. For director Kieran Beccia, this was a big draw: “Pony was the first play I ever encountered that had multiple transgender characters; to this day it is one of maybe three plays I’ve read that has characters in a variety of stages of gender transition. I’m thrilled to be able to put characters onstage who manifest stories and experiences that are less frequently recognized or authentically portrayed by the wider industry.”

Pony (Fenner Frank Merlick) and Marie (Julie Kuwabara) have plenty of dramatic, and passionate, moments together. Photo credit Ben Krantz

Cutting Ball is a small black box theater in the Tenderloin that you might miss if you aren’t looking for it. Before the play starts, we are reminded of the fact that the Tenderloin is historically the transgender district of San Francisco, another piece of information that tends to get lost when talking about the neighborhood. In this intimate show, the modular space is arranged in such a way that the actors can move between and around the back of the audience, a choice which, much like the play itself, simultaneously immerses us and reminds us that we are in a theater.

Despite the often dark subject matter, Pony strikes a balance between its thematic explorations and fun soapy plot twists, which makes for both an emotional and enjoyable watch. The text oscillates between naturalistic dialogue and elevated language, and the talented cast of local actors impressively keep up with the emotional shifts of the play. And while I honestly had trouble following some of the poetic breakdowns, they were well-designed visually and beautifully performed.

Julie Kuwabara as Marie in one of the more poetic moments of the show. Photo by Ben Krantz.

There are many examples in film and theater of queer and especially trans characters being played by cis-hetero actors, as well as directors who have no lived experience of the subject matter they are portraying. That is not the case here, and perhaps is what makes Pony feel different. Nothing it shows us about the trans experience is particularly sensationalized or exaggerated, yet it retains a dramatic arc and is entertaining the whole way through. Of course no work of art can or should ever claim to speak for an entire group of people, but Pony’s authentic approach is not only refreshing, it also makes for a quality piece of theater.

If you want to see this unique play, Pony plays October 15- November 13th, at Cutting Ball Theater. Tickets are sliding scale, $10-$95. Full schedule and tickets can be found here.

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Genie Cartier is a San Francisco native. She graduated from UCLA with a BA in English/ Creative Writing and earned an MFA in Creative Writing/ Poetry from SFSU. Check out her novella Fog City Summer on this website. When not writing, she is also a professional circus performer of 24 years and will be directing Dark Side of the Circus, a circus choreographed to Pink Floyd, in April 2020. Find out more at