Schoolgirl Figure – I Want You to Die-t
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
Yep, it’s Thanksgiving. Let’s talk eating disorders. Or, more properly, let’s talk about Wendy MacLeod’s Schoolgirl Figure, the blackest of black comedies, a wicked, cutting satire on disordered eating. I hate this show. At least, I thought I did. I saw a production at the (now defunct?) Cherry Red Theater back in the early 2000s, when I was was a late-stage teen girl. Cherry Red was known for it’s “shock” or “gross out” theater, and their production featured actual teens rubbing McDonald’s hamburgers into their crotches. It poked the wrong target, made fun of me instead of the culture that surrounded me. It hated me. I left.
That’s usually the problem with these narratives, and Schoolgirl Figure is not different in this respect. It puts the entire onus of guilt on one type of girl – she’s the Bitch, the Queen Bee, a monster. An old, wizened witch in a hot bod with a tacky phone case and too-short skirt. She’s the reason they act this way, she’s the problem. It couldn’t possibly be the myriad of advertising, magazines, plastic-packaged Halloween costumes with names like “Spooky Kitten RAWR”, endless media, music videos, corporate subsidized “look books”, fashion runways, Disney Princesses, television shows with hot wives and fat dads, movies that push “empowerment” contingent on a skin-tight catsuit. It really isn’t our problem, the six billion ways that teen girls are told that there is one way to look and you better look like it or else. Nope, it’s all the fault of the girls themselves, vain as goddesses in some ancient, cautionary tale.
Figure‘s HBIC is called Renee (Tatiana Ford). Renee is a walking, scheming, evil nightmare apparently determined to stop eating altogether. She leads a merry band of “Carpenters”, named for Karen Carpenter, who famously died of anorexia. They consist, besides Renee, of “good girl,” Patty (Chara Bauer) and “second to the crown” Jeanine (Emily Sucher). The object of all of this starvation is “The Bradley” (Flynn Harne), a clueless hunk that functions as top prize for she who diets furthest down. There isn’t much of a plot, per say, it’s mostly binging, purging, backstabbing, and shockingly dark jokes tossed off, casually, through candy-colored lip gloss. The blasé handling of intensely taboo subject matter tips you off that this is, indeed, a satire, a topic made ridiculous by virtue of being taken to its logical extreme.
Jonas David Grey directs sensitively, as he’s under an enormous amount of pressure not to fuck this up, and he doesn’t. In fact, he’s opened the possibilities of a script that I truly thought that I hated, and that’s something. But Grey suffers a higher bar than most in my eyes; he produced, conceived and starred in the explosive Edward II at Spotlighters a few seasons ago, which remains one of the best plays I have ever seen staged. He’s much more tentative here and I missed the bravado and self-confidence he showed as an artist in Edward. This material is a tightrope, and he decided somewhere along the way not to walk it, which leads to a bit of a crisis in terms of point of view. I don’t know what Grey really thinks about any of this. He mostly lets the script speak for itself, and that’s a missed opportunity. In his avoidance of directing an “issue play” he almost forgets that good theater usually takes a stand. It’s usually about something.
What Grey does well, though, always, is casting. I loved that the casting here is not dependent on the dictates of the script. None of the women “match” their character portraits, and that’s great. Ford, for instance, is beautifully healthy, not rail thin (something that is pointedly displayed when Renee whips off her skirt to weigh herself). Bauer’s Patty is constantly referred to as the “fat one”, and she’s anything but. All of them are obviously older than their teen characters. This, to me, is a well-handled reference to the body dysmorphia nearly always co-morbid with eating disorders; what you see in the mirror does not match reality. And the cast pays off. Ford is deliciously narrow-eyed, flinging barbs at her handmaidens with astonishing precision. She also nails a tough monologue at the end, navigating MacLeod’s whiplash change of tone nicely. The pig-tailed Bauer is appropriately wide-eyed and naive, presenting her character’s terrifying lifestyle with a hilarious amount of matter-of-factness. Sucher uses the most irritating part of her vocal register to high effect; she’s sweet as pie laced with acid. Terrance Fleming plays a bunch of little parts and has enormous fun with them, showing himself an adept quick change artist. Alice Stanley brings some nicely timed broad comedy as a couple of clueless adult orbiters and Flynn Harne inhabits The Bradley as a living Ken doll.
Scenic design from Cassandra Dutt was standard issue pepto-pink Barbie Dreamhouse, which works, and lights by Lana Riggins are nicely overbright, suggesting both an operating room and a department store. I LOVED the costumes by Jess Rassp, there seems to be a million witty jokes there, including a chain necklace over a black dress that strongly suggests a skeletal ribcage and The Bradley’s mourning shorts.
BOTTOM LINE: Schoolgirl Figure is not an entry level show (Cohesion has made it clear that they take risks, which I always appreciate). Black comedy is a more difficult tone than most people imagine. It could have pushed harder, gone bigger, made more of a statement, but it could have also so easily capsized that I was glad for the thoughtful choices. It’s funny, it’ll inspire a lot of “Well, what did you think?” and that’s worth the price of admission. See it.
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