Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Evan Placey’s play Girls Like That, now at the Tarragon’s Mainspace, is a play of paradoxes – and a powerful, captivating theatrical experience. It is a feminist play written by a man, and rings true both psychologically and socially. It depicts adolescent girls who live by their cell-phones and social media, yet it appeals both to teenagers and to older women — and men. I attended a matinee where most of the audience were high school and university students who said that the play reflected their lives. There were, however, a number of audience members older than the “social media generation,” who said they, too, identified with the characters and action. Photo courtesy of Cylla von Tiedemann The ensemble of “GIRLS LIKE THAT”
Another paradox: the one-act play has strong characters – and yet the script is written with only one character, Scarlett (dubbed Scarlett the Harlot), named and assigned specific lines in the script. The other lines are for “The Girls,” and it is the director and cast’s decision as to who speaks the various lines – and even how many girls there are. The script says there can be up to 19. In this production, director Esther Jun works with a cast of 7, Scarlett and 6 others.
I think this smaller number gives the play more intimacy, lets the actors move more freely, and lets us get to know the girls better.
They have attended an exclusive school together, from kindergarten through high school. In their final year, a naked photo of Scarlett appears on the girls’ social media networks and goes viral. As they react to the photo, and to Scarlett, the girls reveal their attitudes towards sexuality, their own bodies, their insecurities, boys, and taking responsibility (or not) for their actions. In a couple of scenes, the girls enact the roles of boys whom they overhear commenting on the photo. Their “slut-shaming” is quite visceral – yet they also speak with humour and emotion, and one feels growing compassion and empathy, remembering (perhaps) one’s experiences with these issues). How does a girl learn to find and define herself, sexually and in other ways? At times during the play, there is a “change,” and the girls depict themselves at earlier ages – meeting in kindergarten, swimming class at age 8, a party with boys and kissing games at age 12.
The cast, chosen to reflect diverse backgrounds, is wonderful: these actors, recent drama-school graduates, are able to portray adolescence in a very convincing way. The seven are: Tess Benger, Nadine Bhabha, Shakura Dickson, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Lucy Hill, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, and Rachel VanDuzer. They work together beautifully in ensemble, yet each one has her own style, voice, and movement. All the girls, including Scarlett, do several beautifully-choreographed, high-energy dance and song group numbers, using popular, girl-empowering songs. Through these numbers and through the rhythm of their interconnected dialogue and actions, the girls take on a kind of “group mind,” something like a Greek chorus. In an early scene, one of the girls describes the vicious “pecking order” of her family’s chickens – implying that these girls may have a similar hierarchy. At the end, however, there is a glimmer of insight and hope: “girls like that” realize that girls need to “stick together” to achieve true empowerment.
After four of the musical numbers, the action “dissolves”, like a film, into a scene from 20th century history in which a woman does something non-traditional. The actor playing this woman sheds her school uniform for a striking outfit. The historical scenes, meaningful in themselves, take on an added dimension as the play nears its climax. Ming Wong’s costumes are just right – both the uniforms and the bright notes of non-conformity. The creative team also includes Alyssa Martin’s exuberant, expert choreography, Miquelon Rodriguez’s bold sound design, and Kaileigh Krysztofiak’s striking and nuanced lighting, including some strobe lights. I was impressed by Shannon Lea Doyle’s simple, effective set: a grey stage, with partition for “lockers,” and several large grey boxes, square and rectangular, which the actors use in various ways – seats, walls, etc. Dialogue coach Diane Pitblado helped the actors achieve a believable range of British accents, and Jennifer Dzialoszynski is the fight director. Placey is a Canadian-British playwright now living in England; this play was commissioned and produced by three British companies in 2013. His Scarberia was previously produced in Toronto by Young People’s Theatre. Jun and her creative team and cast have used his excellent script to create a provocative, contemporary drama, with energy, wit, and underlying emotion. Girls Like That will surprise (perhaps shock) you, also delight and move you. Wish there’d been a play like this when I was in school! It’s at the Tarragon Mainspace through May 27th.