Lois lays in a hospital bed, with her husband Dan by her side waiting for her to gain consciousness. Their granddaughter Patti appears unannounced and drugged out, after disappearing for two years working on her gender transition. Dan and Patti take time to mend their bond, and in the process we witness parallels between Dan’s life in the late sixties, becoming his own man through the discovery of karate, and Patti’s own frustrations in her journey into womanhood. Back at the Dojo by Lally Katz is an emotional work, but gently so. It does not create big scenes of heightened family drama, taking its time instead to build on our involvement with its characters and their stories. Through excellent humour and a moving depiction of relationships, we gradually become invested in the people before us, although its slow burn may prove to be too demanding of some audiences. Katz’s writing is amusing and colourful, with an undeniable poetic beauty, but the play takes a long time to get to its point, resulting in a plot that can feel somewhat aimless before we arrive at its later, more poignant sequences.
The decision to cast a male actor in the role of Patti is one that reflects a surprising callousness, given the impressive level of sensitivity evident throughout the rest of the production. Patti’s is one woman’s story, but due to the rarity of transgender representation in our theatres, it is also every trans person’s story. And no trans woman would ever want to see herself portrayed by a man on any stage or screen. We do not see Patti’s early days in masculine expressions of gender, so to choose a male actor over a female one (trans or cis), only goes to demonstrate the production’s inability and refusal to accept Patti’s gender as she now presents. To be misgendered is one of the most appalling things any trans person could experience, and Back at the Dojo‘s misgendering, deliberate or unintentional, is an unacceptable transgression.
It must be said however, that Luke Mullins’ performance as Patti is a captivating one, and very powerful. He is obviously unable to convincingly depict the physical transformations that his character has had to endure. However, there is a beautiful psychological accuracy in his work, in addition to the passionate yet nuanced drama that he sustains in every stage moment. Director Chris Kohn extracts very believable performances from all his actors. it is essentially a simple tale, with few opportunities for a more ostentatious approach (under sensitive guidance of director Chris Kohn and set and costume designer Mel Page), yet every personality and relationship feels meticulously refined, with a palpable omnipresence of truthfulness and vulnerability that gives the show an enchanting soulful quality. The role of Dan is played by Brian Lipson, a gentle giant, full of strength and tenderness in his mesmerising interpretation of an older man dealing with immense loss that will touch the hardest of hearts. Natsuko Mineghishi steals many scenes as the dojo Sensei, a real-life action hero with thrilling karate showmanship, lethal comic timing and a spectacular singing voice.
A profound connection exists between generations although modern life seems to prevent many of us from experiencing and reaping its rewards. The disintegration of the family unit, and the ever rising regard for individuality means that few of us maintain significant intergenerational relationships. In Back at the Dojo, a distraught woman finds purpose and meaning by learning about her grandfather’s own obstacles in life, and by recognising her kinship responsibilities. We come to a realisation that both Patti and Dan are sinking under the weight of loneliness, and that the frailty of their existences are to be salvaged by the perennial tie that binds. They are fortunate to have one another, like we all have our own families, but how we value them is what the play brings into question.