Puberty is the worst thing that ever happened to me.
I looked fabulous at age ten.
This weekend, Schoolgirl Figure, a play written by Wendy MacLeod, opened at Cohesion Theatre Company (“Cohesion”). Like MacLeod’s popular cult-classic, The House of Yes, Schoolgirl Figure centers around a taboo subject normally not open for public discussion; in this case, it’s eating disorders. In the warped high school clique of Schoolgirl Figure, girls are ranked by their dress size. Beyond size eight is “beyond the pale;” double digits are the kind of sin that get you shipped off to the Midwest.
As the play opens, two impatient teens, Renee and Patty, are waiting in line for the girls’ bathroom. It’s just after lunch period and Patty, a Diana (as in, the Princess, who had bulimia), needs to purge before she (horrors!) digests anything. Renee, a Carpenter (a la Karen, who died from anorexia), doesn’t have that problem. She doesn’t eat anything in the first place. The reigning Carpenter, Monique, has died from her condition and Renee is on a mission. Lie, cheat or steal, Renee is dead set on beating rival anorexic Jeanine to become the new Queen of the Underfed and winning the prized, hotter-than-hot boyfriend, The Bradley. Black comedy doesn’t get much blacker.
I know what you’re thinking. A comedy about high school girls competing to be the most emaciated? Pass. I felt the same way when I first read a synopsis, but having seen it performed, I can attest to its merits.
The first thing you should know is that Schoolgirl Figure means to be twisted. It’s a Juvenalian satire, like A Modest Proposal – Jonathan Swift’s (in)famous essay that suggested the poor in Ireland alleviate their poverty by selling their children as food to rich British families. It’s deliberately abrasive; a hyperbolic parody that makes a point. But there’s a fine line between funny, satirical exaggeration and mean-spirited mockery.
Director Jonas David Grey addresses that line in his Director’s Note, saying:
Presented in the wrong way, this play could easily drift into indelicate and offensive territory. It is my hope that you will experience this as comedy. That is our intention.
And it’s an intention that Grey achieves. If ‘dark comedy’ is not your cup of zero-calorie water, you should know that Schoolgirl Figure has its share of laughs.
One of the reasons Grey is successful in presenting this piece is the outstanding cast he selected. Tatiana Ford plays the narcissistically amoral Renee, whose ambition knows no bounds. Ford adeptly manages to make this unsympathetic character come off less like a monster and more like the totally broken human she is. Chara Bauer shines as Patty, the conscience of the play. A halfhearted bulimic, Patty is the lone voice of reason in a world that has lost its moral compass. Bauer’s pitch-perfect portrayal has you rooting for Patty to break out of the binge and purge purgatory she inhabits.
Emily Sucher gives a winning performance as Jeanine. Sucher brings a kind of sweet naïvety to her obsessive character. There’s no doubt that Jeanine has lost the ability to gauge what are reasonable things to do to your body – she willingly contracts the flu to help her lose a dress size – but she still has a sense of right and wrong. She wants to win The Bradley fair and square, not through trickery.
Despite having a series of girlfriends die, The Bradley, played by Flynn Harne, seems pretty clueless about the high-stakes contest that centers around him. Harne does a great job of projecting a “wait, what?” kind of energy throughout the show.
It seems like every time I see Alice Stanley lately, they display another talent that wows me. At Political Cabaret, I heard the range of their lovely singing voice; in Schoolgirl Figure, I discovered their capacity for comedy. As Monique’s mom, Jane, and especially as the name-dropping drama teacher, Mrs. Blue, Stanley had me laughing out loud.
Jane Jongeward ably played both the dearly departed Monique and the Guidance Counselor. Rounding out the cast was Terrance Fleming, who rose to the challenge of playing four distinct characters. His sassy cookie store lady was hilarious, and his flask-sipping funeral home attendant particularly cracked me up.
The set for Schoolgirl Figure is fantastic. Cleverly using the space, Assistant Director/Scenic Designer Cassandra Dutt scaled the set in a way that evokes the sense that the actors are dolls inside a pinker-than-pink Barbie Dreamhouse. There’s an in-wall projection screen that acts as an indicator of location – stained glass for church, a heart monitor display for the hospital – and as a portal through which a bitchy Greek chorus of dead Carpenters chastises the girls for their failings. It also broadcasts SGTV, an old school MTV type of channel that shows flashy montages and music videos between the acts. Grey made excellent choices for the videos, including “Celebrity Skin” by Hole, “Perfect” by Pink, and the particularly inspired “Tunic (Song for Karen)” by Sonic Youth.
If you have serious body image issues or a dysmorphic disorder, you’re unlikely to find Schoolgirl Figure super funny. There are bits that even with this production’s careful attention to not “being an issue play” or to make a statement about society and the media, etc., you’d probably find pretty prickly. If, on the other hand, you like your comedy extra-dark, you will love Cohesion Theatre’s Schoolgirl Figure.
Running Time: Two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission.
Schoolgirl Figure plays through December 4, 2016 at Cohesion Theatre, performing at United Evangelical Church – 923 South East Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, or online.