Transfigurations—Transgressing Gender in the Bible
Reviewed by Kody Gabriel Hersh
Written and performed by Peterson Toscano; directed by Samuel Neff. Barclay Press, 2017. 103 minutes. $20/DVD; $14.99/download; $2.99/online rental.
I first saw Peterson Toscano’s play, Transfigurations—Transgressing Gender in the Bible, shortly after it premiered in late 2007. A character revelation in the last scene brought me to tears at that show—and half a dozen times after that, as I showed up to just about every Transfigurations performance I could over the next few years. Though most dramatically presented in that final scene, every character in Transfigurations is revelatory. Unexpected twists and turns are brought to light in often familiar stories by Toscano’s deft and creative scholarship: like Joseph, victim of a gender-based hate crime, or the transgender woman who leads the disciples to her home for the Last Supper. Toscano makes a strong case that not only are gender-variant characters present in the Bible, they are central figures in some of the most important stories of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Transfigurations accomplishes several fairly extraordinary things. It speaks into the fraught intersection of religion and LGBTQ issues, and, without pretending neutrality, welcomes audience members with widely divergent perspectives. It is accessible to people who have never cracked open a Bible, while offering meaningful insights to biblical scholars and other experts. It is intellectually rigorous but grounded in emotion, spirit, and body.
Toscano’s humor, creativity, and humility open up the space in which all of this is possible. But the immediacy and intimacy of a live one-person play also carries a lot of the power and magic of the piece for me. I was skeptical that a filmed version would be able to preserve that energy.
Of course, the movie version of Transfigurations, directed by Samuel Neff, doesn’t recreate the magic of live performance. But the elegant, sparse production allows the piece to grow into a new form, one that can be shared widely beyond the limitations of one person’s touring schedule, while retaining the integrity of the stories and characters themselves. In fact, the DVD release brings two new forms of Transfigurations into the world: a performance version, featuring Toscano in the roles of various biblical characters, and a lecture-performance hybrid, in which a selection of monologues are interspersed with Toscano’s own reflections on the stories. These two versions, either of which can be easily broken into shorter segments, offer an exciting range of possible uses for the piece in classes, discussion groups, Bible studies, and other events for both faith communities and LGBTQ people—and will hold a special place, I suspect, in the hearts of folks who live at the intersection of those two worlds.