IF YOU LIKE YOUR IDENTITY POLITICS SPOON-FED, this is your show. Seasoned with "I gotta be me" affirmations and small town everycharacters of the haters-with-hearts-of-gold variety, Ever Since Irma LaDouce tells the story of Francis, a woman who undergoes a midlife gender reassignment and returns to his/her small hometown. Francis is played by Susan Finque, who also plays the variety of characters drawn upon to comment on Francis' female-to-male transformation: an embittered ex-husband, skeptical friends, and an angry teenaged son. From Francis' homecoming the show proceeds in inexorable TV movie fashion (insert social pariah factor here), from resistance to acceptance to heartwarming triumph: "I'll never be gender-coded again!"

For the most part, the body (the center of this story) is treated only in the broadest metaphorical strokes--the cover by which we misjudge the book. Finque floats from one character to the next, the transitions marked by incongruous, jerky movement sections. Throughout, writer/director Laurie Thomas defaults to canned characterizations--a diva falsetto for the Gender Goddess, hunched shoulders and lower registers for the guys, Southern-fried twangs for the small towners (with the exception of the townies dealing with cancer, all of whom seem to have emigrated from Long Island).

Every character is sympathetic. Every observation prompts a knowing nod ("He spent so many years mastering someone else that he had no idea who he was"). Thomas' script stays within the safe confines of bewildered family and skeptical neighbors, but occasionally a beautiful sense of theatricality still manages to shine through. At one point, Finque confesses that she once wanted to be Fred Astaire; as she mimics the dancer's moves, the spotlight shrinks until she can no longer fit her body into it. At another point, a character admits to idolizing Shirley MacLaine as "a fully realized woman" ever since Irma LaDouce (a nice, ironic touch--in the 1963 film, MacLaine plays a ditzy prostitute whom a besotted policeman attempts to turn into the girl next door.) Later Finque introduces us to an artist of ambiguous gender, who makes a mark smashing teacups and sticking the shards into daubs of paint to create "mosaics of domestic abstraction." But these idea-driven moments are too rare. Sadly, Ever Since Irma LaDouce lacks the ambiguity it hopes to celebrate. --TONIA STEED

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THREE LIBRARIANS MAKE UP THE CIRCULATION staff of The Vulgar Librarian. None of them is vulgar, no matter how they might desire to live up to the title: they are all as formal as library science education, schooled in Dewey decimals, data retrieval, and fastidious page repair. Instead, it is the outside world that is vulgar, in the eyes of this demurely dressed ensemble. Outside, technology has overtaken the pristine world of the word. It makes sense, then, that Eunice, the research librarian, has locked the doors of the library, and that there has been nary a patron in 25 years.

With a beautiful set comprised of hundreds of ripped-up books set against the huge wooden desks and card catalogues that used to grace every library, at first glance The Vulgar Librarian seems to have a healthy ironic grasp of the modern dysfunction of the library. According to the liner notes, the company (Manual Arts Theater) wanted to explore "the obsessive, systematic nature of the library," and "the social implications of being on the brink of a technical age that is both liberating and oppressive." But like a doddering old patron, the play can't seem to decide how it wants to read. Is it a mystery? A melodrama? Occult? Poetic? Any librarian would be hard pressed to categorize its method or message.

Perhaps the problem is in the voluptuousness of the material, a voluptuousness with which the actors cannot compete. As a setting for exploration of erotic liberation, the library is almost without limits, and when one can pull from any text, the cross-references confuse as much as they illuminate. What excerpts the narrative draws from are well chosen, but the ideological force of the "social implications" prevents any character development, and instead the librarians devolve into ciphers, falling victim to a simple violent epiphany (the references to Southern literature proving all too prophetic). The Vulgar Librarian is literally overtaken by its subtext. The aftermath is merely disappointing, a denouement as scattered as the disembodied pages strewn about the stage's floor, and far less entertaining. --TRACI VOGEL