High School Hunger Games Played for Laughs: SCHOOLGIRL FIGURE at Cohesion
Posted on BroadwayWorld.com November 21, 2016
Wendy MacLeod‘s play Schoolgirl Figure, gracing the performance space at United Evangelical Church for three weeks, is a natural choice for a fringe troupe. Its subject is sensitive and controversial, the tone is on beyond irreverent, and accordingly no company that produces it need feel bound by any sense of reverence toward the script either. But that is not to say that every approach will work equally well. The version presented by local fringe outfit Cohesion Theatre Company, directed by Jonas David Grey, reflects some of these challenges.
Set in a high school where certain girls, banded together as The Carpenters, are in an anorexia/bulimia competition, where the intermediate prize is to date the hunky The Brad (Flynn Harne) and the longer-term prize is death by malnutrition, the show follows the battle between the utterly unscrupulous uber-bitch Renee (Tatiana Nya Ford) and fierce competitor Jeanine (Emily Sucher) to succeed Monique, the late victor in these hunger games (Jane Jongeward), as The Brad’s choice. Patty (Chara Bauer) is ostensibly a competitor herself, but her real role in life is to serve as Renee’s wingwoman, and the dilemma constantly thrust upon her is whether to let her appetite (which generally wins out over her anorexic aspirations) and her sense of decency (constantly outraged by Renee’s deceptions) overrule what Renee wants her to do. Watching over and commenting upon these goings-on – in rhymed couplets – are the ghosts of Monique and (on the video) the two girls who preceded her in starvation. Along the way, various adults portrayed by Terrance Fleming and Alice Stanley are hoodwinked and coopted to participate in the fun.
Obviously, there are serious things that can be said about eating disorders and their connection to American ideals of the female body image, and some of these statements do eventually get made, more or less directly, at the end. But MacLeod is writing more a black comedy than an issues play. The total insanity of the Carpenters’ activities is handled more as a given than the point of the show. In fact, the play often seems more like a sitcom than a jeremiad.
The resulting strange tone would present problems for any director and cast, and it is hardly a grave criticism to say that the Cohesion folks sometimes seem to wobble. I think partly this is due to what is, in this context, unconventional casting. One of the actresses playing the three living contestants is just skinny enough to be convincing as an anorexic, but the other two are not, despite dialogue that describes them as underweight and flat-chested. I empathize with the director’s likely angst in casting these parts, since the actresses (Ford and Bauer) are otherwise perfect for their roles. Ford has a wonderful trick of slowing down and speaking every word by itself to lengthen the time available for her character’s fertile mind to eke out the next outrageous lie, and Bauer has the knack of conveying a girl torn between loyalty to her friend and fundamental human decency (usually the losing tendency). You want these players in these roles, even though they don’t look the part(s). But this is one of those contexts where if you don’t look the part, the inauthenticity will take some kind of toll. (I saw a production of Harvey in Minneapolis this spring with something similar: an Asian-American actress in a part that was supposed to be a gentle comic sendup of the foibles of the mid-20th Century WASP gentry. She was not believably the daughter of the woman with whom she was having WASP-y mother issues. You got past it, mostly, but the impersonation suffered, unfair though this may have been.)
And even though you applaud when the characters finally band together and speak out at the end about the pervasive body shaming that provides the setting in which eating disorders take shape, there are lines earlier like “Thank God [the media] are upholding standards,” said by a character who apparently means it when she says it. So which is the character’s real outlook? Hard to know.
Do we really need a coherent script? Probably not. Coherence can be overrated. And one of the joys of the try-anything approach of the Cohesion people over the last couple of years has been their willingness to take on projects where the chance of perfect polish is small, but the opportunity for showing you something you haven’t seen before is great. Schoolgirl Figureexemplifies “something you haven’t seen before.” Out there for two decades, it is still a show I hadn’t heard of before, and I’ll bet you, dear reader, had not heard of it either. It’s transgressive, it’s funny, and it provides (to borrow a slogan from a Las Vegas casino) just the right amount of wrong. You cannot also require it to be the kind of well-oiled dramatic machine one sees on Broadway.
So that’s that. Go see it. Your funny bone will thank you.
And let me mention on the way out: Casey Dutt’s hilarious Cinderella/Barbie pink set and the well-selected and humorously topical pop music videos (from acts like Garbage and Pink) that serve as overture, entr’acte, and exit music.
Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.