Basil (pronounced like the herb) Kreimendahl's Sidewinders, now in its world premiere at the Cutting Ball Theater after a staged reading as part of the company's Risk Is This festival last year, has a strikingly familiar setup: Two characters who are marooned in the middle of nowhere debate, without much hope of resolution, whether to stay or go, entertaining themselves with invented games and absurdist rejoinders — when they aren't getting visited by an older man and his slave.
If that sounds a lot like Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a connection Kreimendahl didn't set out to make but has embraced after the fact, that's just the play's skeleton. The "nowhere" of Sidewinders is "the old west/not the old west," which breeds botched showdowns, malfunctioning trains and wagons, and epithets like "lily-livered gizzard-wad."
But the frontier here is also sexual. Characters don't just have unreliable memories and personal histories, as Beckett's do; they lack sexual and gender identities. Bailey (DavEnd) has what the gunslinging Dakota (Sara Moore) calls "organ confusion."
Kreimendahl, a gender-queer playwright who eschews gender-specific pronouns, treats Bailey and all other characters in this play accordingly, referring to them as "ze" in the script's stage directions. "I can not even name it," Bailey says shortly after the play begins, referring to his/her genitals. "Do not have a name for what I have got. If you can not name it then how are you supposed to know what to do with it?"
Much of the play is about that struggle to name both body parts and ways of thinking and being that don't have a language yet. The stage directions dictate that performers employ a family of nonlinguistic sounds to refer to their sexual organs, never using the same sound twice. For director M. Graham Smith, a local artist who's also making his Cutting Ball main stage debut with this production, the play's unique idiom connects Kreimendahl to Beckett in yet another way. Beckett's universe, he says, asks "how do you reassess and remake a language when a lot of the things that language stood for are gone?"
Kreimendahl, who's from Louisville, lives in Minneapolis, and works in Iowa, describes the idea of a character who doesn't know his or her gender as "a literalization of what a lot of people go through when they're trying to figure out their place in the world in terms of their gender or their [gender] presentation. Because we're apt to choose either masculine or feminine, if you're someone in-between, that choice becomes a lot less clear, but you're still asked to make it."
For Smith, Sidewinders exposes the ways we've all been forced to choose. "The play's really about how our gender norms serve us or don't serve us," he says. "In that way I think it's much more inclusive than two characters who have question marks in their trousers. In a way, we all have question marks in our trousers. Do we completely buy into the assumptions made about us?"
In the play, Bailey's choosing is violent. Within moments of the play's opening, Dakota commands Bailey at gunpoint to "drop those trousers, Cowpoke" so that Dakota can inspect Bailey's genitals. That violence, says Kreimendahl, parallels what many gender-queers experience when they're forced to select an identity from a false binary.
Kreimendahl and Smith cast the roles with performers who deeply understand gender identity confusion. "It's become really important to me as a playwright to have at least some queer people that are actors in the room," says Kreimendahl. When that's the case, "there are things we don't have to talk about, that they just get." All of the cast members, which include Donald Currie and Norman Muñoz, in addition to Moore and DavEnd, are queer, and in different ways. "Because of the background they came with," Kreimendahl says, "they were able to find so much depth in the script that, if we'd had a straight cast, I don't know if we would have ever gotten."
Smith sees his casting choices as a small part of a broader social justice project. "I think that trans casting is the next casting struggle in this country," he says. "I think that it is extremely important that queer actors get to voice queer characters because they have been unable to tell their stories for so long."
Sidewinders is just as earthy as it is lofty, though. Kriemendahl has built rich opportunities for clowning into the script, as Beckett did with his. The play, says Smith, "comes out of the rhythms of music hall and vaudeville. Even when I'm not getting clarity of characters' intentions through the language, I'm laughing. Even if you're not getting it on an intellectual level, you're getting it on a funny level."