Regional Reviews: Boston
Also see Josh's review of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Playwright Alexa Derman, an alumna of Yale, had a Yale University Dramatic Association production of Girlish in October, 2017, prior to working with Fresh Ink. Building on her own experience with American Girl dolls, Derman explores some of the adolescent challenges around growing up, especially whether or not it means leaving your doll collection or your best friend behind. Invoking the prevalence of social media, the influence of peer pressure, and the plethora of insecurities inherent in teenage angst, she gets a lot right in creating the world of the play, but the thin storyline lacks nutritional value.
Windy (Atlee Jensen), aka wendydarling01, is a fifteen-year-old girl with one foot stuck in childhood pursuits and the other struggling to move ahead to greater adventures. It is questionable whether she prefers the company of her BFF Marti (Willa Eigo), not an AG aficionado, or her large collection of American Girl dolls. Her Instagram video posts about her obsession draw the attention of a cute, older guy, screen name AGBOI97 (Dylan C. Wack), further complicating her decisions and her relationship with Marti.
Jensen gets inside Windy's persona, shuffling back and forth between her conflicted feelings about Marti, and showing flashes of burgeoning maturity even as she plays with her dolls. Eigo convincingly travels across Marti's story arc, at first appearing to be wiser and more confident than her friend, but eventually displaying an equal degree of insecurity. The two young women work well together and convince us of the longevity and depth of the girls' friendship.
AGBOI97 never interacts directly with the girls, but appears separate from their part of the set, standing in a spotlight off to stage left. Wack gives him a measure of charm, which gradually devolves into a sort of charismatic creepiness.
Scenic designer Michelle Sparks and lighting designer Harrison Pearse Burke collaborate to create the contrast between Windy's little girlish bedroom and AGBOI97's darker, starker corner. Liz Fenstermaker provides Windy with a series of costume changes that Jensen pulls out of an onstage trunk, making it clear that the girl is experimenting with finding her style. Marti is more put-together in terms of fashion, hair and makeup from the start and tries to help Windy by cutting her bangs to match those of her favorite doll, Stephanie.
Director Melanie Garber uses the intimate space of the Plaza Black Box Theatre well and paces the action without pause, aided by having Windy change her outfits onstage and on the fly. Garber successfully guides her 20-something cast members to deliver credible performances as teens, with attention paid to details that are evocative of adolescent behavior.
Girlish runs approximately 65 minutes without an intermission, giving rise to the feeling that there is room to expand. The play ends with a brief peek into an area of Windy and Marti's relationship that has been hinted at, off and on, that could bear looking into in greater depth, or dropped altogether. As it stands, the viewer cannot be sure if Derman really sees it as an outgrowth of her characters' development, or if it is merely an afterthought.
Girlish, through February 16, 2019, by Fresh Ink Theatre Company at Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Black Box Theatre, 539 Tremont Street, Boston MA. Box Office 617-933-8600 or freshinktheatre.org.
Written by Alexa Derman, Directed by Melanie Garber; Dramaturgs, Corianna Moffatt and Ramona Ostrowski; Stage Manager, Cristina Dones; Assistant Director, Hannah Pryfogle; Assistant Stage Manager, Victoria Hermann; Scenic Design, Michelle Sparks; Lighting Design, Harrison Pearse Burke; Costume Design, Liz Fenstermaker; Prop Design, Moira Beale; Sound Design, Benjamin Finn
Cast: Atlee Jensen, Willa Eigo, Dylan C. Wack