by Lynn on April 26, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Evan Placey

Directed by Esther Jun

Set by Shannon Lea Doyle

Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak

Costumes by Ming Wong

Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez

Choreography by Alyssa Martin

Cast: Tess Berger

Nadine Bhabha

Shakura Dickson

Allison Edwards-Crewe

Lucy Hill

Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks

Rachel VanDuzer

Girls Like That is a troubling look at a bullying clique of girls and how one girl learns from the experience and becomes empowered. Once again, a man is going to ‘splain it all to ‘us’. 

The Story. It takes place in England, but it could really be anywhere. While the story goes back and forth in time to establish various points, the main thrust is that when Scarlett was a teenager in high school someone took a picture of her naked (was it at a party?) and it went viral. The photo was passed from one cell phone to another until her whole school had it. The clique of girls she ‘grew up’ with were the most frequent to click ‘send’ without a thought of how it affected her.

Scarlett was one of 20 girls who met when they were five-years-old and in kindergarten at St. Helen’s School, a school for bright girls. They played, danced and bonded and yet, for some unknown reason, they often ostracized Scarlett. The same group of girls went to another school for high school, and again, more often than not, Scarlett was excluded from the group and their parties etc. And then came the naked photo that went viral and had a devastating effect on Scarlett and how she coped.

 The Production.  Infectious pop music plays as the audience files in: Cyndi Lauper sings “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, another is Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” The first scene in director Esther Jun’s energetic, smartly nuanced production, is of the teen girls lined up across the stage each speaking a pejorative word with venom: “whore”, ‘skank, ’slut’ etc. to describe their attitude towards Scarlett when they see the photo. No one questions where the photo came from or why. No one asks Scarlett about it. They just condemn her to each other and click “send”.

Esther Jun quickly establishes the cohesiveness of the clique. They sashay and move in unison for the most part, they hip-sway and snap their fingers with attitude to make a point. When they ignore Scarlett they turn away from her with a flick of their hair, again with attitude. Scarlett backs off, wounded, watchful wondering what she did wrong.

Various scenes in the production pulse with rock songs of female empowerment. Kudos to choreographer Alyssa Martin for creating wild, freewheeling movement for the cast of seven women.

In those scenes when the girls first meet in kindergarten each girl references their mothers regarding how to dress, how to behave etc. It’s said often with a grimace if they find the instructions lame, or a self-serving smirk if they agree and think they are better than their other friends.

The cast is uniformly strong with Shakura Dickson as Scarlett a stand-out. Because Scarlett is not included in the group she must fend for herself. Dickson conveys the weight of that isolation on Scarlett with telling body language, a sense of being shunned and confused as to why, and a growing attitude of not taking this behaviour lightly. She stands up to the bullies in one glorious scene towards the second half of the play. While the speech is given facing the audience with the clique behind her, Dickson occasionally looks to her right and left to include these young women behind her in the speech. One thinks it might be possible that these young women might finally ‘get it’ about their bad behaviour but one is not really sure, since playwright Evan Placey doesn’t have them address that moment verbally.

Because Scarlett is the only one given a name by playwright Evan Placey, she acts with individual traits, subtleties and distinguishing reactions and attitudes. The others have the anonymity of a pack of animals or nameless beings. In kindergarten they are all hyper and giddy. In high school they are uniformly high pitched and smarmy, with lack of any idea of consequences.

Occasionally a girl in the group might display a moment of individual guilt or concern, or each girl might have a line or two given individually to the audience, but such moments of individuality fade quickly and the girl submerges back into clique-mode. The bond of the pack is so strong that these girls seem totally unaware that their behaviour is despicable.

The dialogue in Evan Placey’s  play darts from one character to another with such precision it’s like watching a volley ball game with a team of champions. Again, Esther Jun has created an ensemble of actors that keep the brisk pace going and never flagging.

Moments in women’s history are referenced: a woman attends a wild pool party in London in 1924 when her irate brother comes to get her and notes with indignity that their mother didn’t work so hard to earn women the right to vote only to have her daughter act badly; a woman in 1945 is a flight instructor and is treated with distain by a male student she is trying to instruct. She quietly gets even with him. While these historical moments do play into the narrative –bullying seems counterproductive to the strides women have made—these historical references seem out of place really since men are the powerful force here and not women. These moments are referenced later as well.

Comment.  The humour in Evan Placey’s work is sharp, brittle and often funny. And certainly Esther Jun’s sterling production plays on that humour and brings out the squirm factor in this angry work.

But I have serious issues with Placey’s play.

 A play about a group of women who have been friends since they were five is interesting. That they have all bandied together to systematically bully another one of their group makes for intriguing, prickly viewing. That the play is written by a man is particularly troubling. Lemme see if I’ve got this right: a man playwright is going to ‘splain how young girls and then women bully another girl for more than 10 years without one shred of regret or concern from any of them for that whole time? What is wrong with this picture? The bullies are protected with anonymity (no one is given a name except the word “somebody”), while the victim is named and her name is “Scarlett”—can we be more obvious? Scarlett? Really? What is wrong with this picture?

It’s the gaps between the information that are a serious issue and an indication of what the playwright wanted  to address. I have to take the information in the press release as the author’s true intent. So we have this comment:

“Girls Like That is an explosive new play that explores the evolution of feminist consciousness and modern female friendships in the wake of advancing technology. A naked photo of Scarlett goes viral. Rumours spread across smartphones like wildfire and her reputation becomes toxic, threatening to shatter the clique of girls she has grown up with. But how long can Scarlett remain silent? And why isn’t it the same for boys?”

I’d like to see that play that the press release describes one day, but this version of it doesn’t come close. I agree the play is “explosive.” The only person who in any way explores or experiences “the evolution of feminist consciousness” with any awareness is Scarlett and we can see that clearly charted in the production and the dialogue. If the other women had any feminist epiphany, it isn’t established in the play. And seeing the clique of women at 45-years-of-age with young children of their own, without them giving even a suggestion that their younger selves were despicable, and to prevent that in their own children, renders the play on that count, irrelevant.  “And why isn’t it the same for boys?” (a teenaged boy was photographed on a smartphone and anyone who saw the photo admired the boy. With a girl, Scarlett, the result was much different.) Even questioning why it’s different for boys, is a whole other play and a red herring of a line.

And really, Scarlett’s reputation becomes toxic because the clique of ‘friends’ sullied her reputation with rumour and innuendo. And really, this “threatened to shatter the clique of girls she has grown up with”, is that such a bad thing? Those girls are hideous! Where do such girls come from? From mothers who were bullies just like them when they were five.

There is a play to be written about girls as bullies and their victims. Girls Like That isn’t it.

Presented by Tarragon Theatre.

Opened: April 26, 2018.

Closes: May 27, 2018.

Running Time:  1 hour, 45 minutes.

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