“Sommerfugl” at New York Theatre Workshop’s 4th Street Theatre

Joseph Verlezza

“And I am like a deceiver, like a usurper who has reigned over a body which has ceased to be his own, like a person who owns merely the facade of his own house.” (Einar/Lili)

A fascinating story unfolds on the small performance space at the 4th Street Theatre thanks to the InViolet Theatre Theater Company’s engaging current production. “Sommerfugl” traces the life of Einar Wegener, the first person to receive gender confirming surgery in Germany in 1930 in order to blossom into Lili Elbe. The play is complex, intriguing, sensitive and emotional but never falls prey to convention, stereotype or social norm. The characters are real, honest, complicated and stripped of any false façade enabling them to capture and expose their heart and soul. The script by playwright Bixby Elliot is economical, intelligent, straight forward and candid, avoiding any external confusion, allowing an easy flow and keen dramatic arc. The direction by Stephen Brackett is precise and provides actors the luxury of discovery. The set by Jason Sherwood is minimal, clean and comfortable allowing the lighting by Zach Blane to create and transport the actors and audience to where they need to be. Costumes by Tilly Grimes provide existence and period for the characters with a harmonic color palette that is calm and pleasing to the eye.

Now to what breathes life into and provides the heartbeat of this production: the actors. Wayne Wilcox inhabits Einar with every fiber of his being Mr. Wilcox is intellectually, physically and emotionally invested in the transformation process to show the world the hidden Lili Elbe. He is strong, subtle, sensitive and inquisitive, never letting his vulnerability sway to simple melancholy. Aubyn Philabaum as Grete is devoted, determined, distinct and just purely delicious as she carefully maneuvers through an emotional minefield. Bernardo Cubria is remarkable as Claude providing a sincere warmth and incredible depth to an underwritten character. He morphs into other roles with ease and precision demonstrating his finely honed craft. Michelle David is delightful as Anna and more than competent in the role of the nurse.

There are times when these actors speak volumes with a stare or glance, no words uttered, just a silent communication as their eyes are flooded with pools of intelligence and emotion. Enhanced by beautiful moods of light, they appear as stars of a silent movie or held in a thought or pose to transform into a period painting. They are a joy to observe and touch your heart with their sense of understanding. This is a production that needs to be seen for more than one reason.

Constructive criticism comes with noting there might be room for more development in story and character. Claude needs more attention as does the evolution of his relationship with Lili. Also Dr. Steuben who pioneered the gender confirming surgery could be fleshed out and his understanding and compassionate character revealed on another human level. It would be easy to find another relevant 15 minutes of interest and very welcomed, but for now, kudos to the entire creative team who make this gem shine. 


Written by Bixby Elliot and directed by Stephen Brackett. The creative team for “Sommerfugl” includes Jason Sherwood (scenic design), Tilly Grimes (costume design), Zach Blane (lighting design), Stowe Nelson (sound design), Dylan Luke (production manager/technical director), Melanie Aponte (production stage manager), Natalie Loveland (wig design), and Jennifer Bowen (props design). Production photos by Skipper Chong Warson.

Presented by InViolet Theater at NYTW’s 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street, New York, NY on the following performance schedule: Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. through Saturday October 10. General admission tickets are $18.00 and can be purchased by calling 866-811-4111 or by visiting https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/10032135. Running time is 80 minutes without intermission.

WITH: Bernardo Cubria, Michelle David, Aubyn Philabaum, and Wayne Alan Wilcox.