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Chris Howey reveals all in the funny, often sad, always compelling EXACT CHANGE

Roy Berko

Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle

In her book, “Dress Codes: of three girlhoods—my mother’s, my father’s and mine,” Noelle Howey writes, “I have a dad who is a woman much like me, but with better legs.  And when he was still male, I had a dad possibly like yours: sullen, sporadically hostile, frequently vacant.  I had a dad who became a woman in order to be nice.”  Noelle goes on to say, “I have a family that survived a life in the closet . . . a traditional family . . . that would probably be the right wing’s worst nightmare.”

Noelle is writing about her father, Richard Howey, historically a leading actor in the Cleveland area noted for his starring roles as a bearded, balding, macho male in many Dobama Theatre shows.

Howey is known today to many Clevelanders as Christine Howey,  one of the area’s leading theatre critics.

“Exact Change,” is a one-woman play about Chris’s transition, and is now being staged at The Helen, in the Cleveland Play House complex in PlayhouseSquare.

Christine reflects on her motivation for bringing her story to the stage, and its importance in 2015:  “For people to understand and feel positively towards [transgender people], they first have to see  us…For many years I wanted to live my life – my new life – and not call attention to it.  But the continuing assaults on transgender people have bolstered my resolve to be a part of the solution.  If telling my story, warts and all, is what is required, then it is a small price to pay.”

The effect of the story may have somewhat softened by the recent announcement of Olympic superstar, Bruce Jenner’s, “coming out.” But, in contrast to Jenner’s dependence of media sensationalism, Howey’s story is told with the use of her brilliant poetry.  Personal complete with the voices of his demons [“The Enforcer”], his mother, wife, daughter, and various people who were and are part of “his,” then “her” life.

Richard, early in life, became aware of his internal message, “IWTBAG” (I Want To Be A Girl.)   Through such poems as, “1957 Puberty,” “The Pickle Coke,” “Sick Day,” “Beowulf and Dinah at Breakfast,” ”Dolly,” “The Family Way,” “The Crowded Chair,” “”Potholder,” “Mom’s Pro and Con List,” “Outing 1999),” “And One More Thing,” “Major Pelvic Event,” “They Didn’t Notice Me,” and “Coming Out Party,” we are taken on the journey from frustrated male to full functioning female.

We see the character from outward appearance to inner thoughts, from actions to perceptions.  Sometimes Richard and Christine are in the open, center stage.  At other times one or the other is behind or peeking through three sets of venetian blinds, which act as both the characters’ shields and openings into the world.

Electronic visuals aid, personal pictures, titles of the poems, help us on the journey.  Part of the story is backed up by music intended to intensify the spoken words.  At times, the music, especially that which contains sung words, is distracting.  This is one of few production hitches in the staging.

The production in the Helen is not the first presentation of the script.  It has gone through a number of productions and recreations.  The tale of 22 years of transformation was first a series of poems, then took on a play format entitled, “Like a Doberman on a Quarter Pounder,” the title of a poem in the original conception.

The play  premiered in early 2013 at Cleveland Public Theatre in the “Big Box New Work Development Series.”   A year and many revisions later, it appeared in CPT’s main stage season as “Exact Change.”  It was subsequently performed in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and at none too fragile theatre in Akron.  The production has been accepted into the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival for several late August performances.

During the process of development, the focused direction and advice of Scott Plate has been evident.  From a series of poems scattered on a card table at Baldwin Wallace University, the ideas have been arranged and rearranged. Chris and Scott have sparred over the format, the staging, and the special effects.  The end result shows all the work, which included a major change being made the day before the latest staging opened.  Yes, in their march toward perfection, theatre scripts are an evolving art.

The journey of the production has been helped by local producers, including Raymond Bobgan (Cleveland Public Theatre), Gina Vernaci (PlayhouseSquare) and Sean Derry (none too fragile).

This is a real tale that clearly explains the concept of a boy born in the wrong body and the real tale of how he morphed into the “she” “he” had to become.

Capsule judgement:  Those of us who have followed the development of the staged tale from Richard to Christine, from idea to the compelling piece of theater, have been privileged to watch the piece evolve through the diligence of Chris Howey and Scott Plate.   You now can see the results of many, many hours of extremely hard work, toil that resulted in a compelling, funny, emotionally charged experience that is a must see experience.  Do yourself and Chris a favor by attending one of the remaining performances.  (Since The Helen is a small space, get tickets early as the show should sell out.)

For tickets to “Exact Change,” which runs June 11 through 13, 2015  and June 25-27, with performances at 8 on Thursday and Fridays and 5 and 8:30 on Saturday, go to or call 16-241-6000.

[Personal reveal:  Chris is a friend.  I acted with Richard at Dobama. I serve with Chris as a member of the Cleveland Critics Circle.  She has aided me in my role as counselor and life coach to better understand and help my gender conflicted clients.  Thanks to Chris for her bravery in making her life’s path public as a source of information and entertainment.]