Ashley DiFranza, Contributing Critic - Boston
Fresh Ink Theatre Company, an organization known in Boston for producing new works by New England playwrights, recently closed their contemporary play “Girlish,” by Alexa Derman. This show, which ran from February 1st through the 16th at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Blackbox Theatre, tells the story of Windy (Atlee Jensen), a teenage girl who, despite her age, finds herself deep in the American Girl Doll fandom. The story follows Windy as she navigates how to balance her love of her dolls with the natural trials of growing up, including dating, makeup, and meeting the expectations of her trendy longtime best friend, Marti (Willa Eigo.) When Windy eventually strikes up a new and exciting relationship with a fellow American Girl Doll fanatic online, AGBOI97 (Dylan C. Wack), she begins to pull away from Marti and, in doing so, discovers a new array of truths about herself and her passion that cause her to step away from playing pretend and face her reality head on.
Derman’s play, which is set in present day, does a fantastic job of incorporating trendy and relevant references into the text, allowing audiences to connect with the material from the start. Whether it’s the mention of Urban Decay’s Naked Eyeshadow Palate, the nostalgic reference to K.A. Applegate and Michael Grant’s “Animorphs” book series, or even the heavy incorporation of texting, video calling, and Instagram posting as a means of communication for the characters in this story, Derman’s work does a fantastic job of engaging a contemporary audience.
What’s more, Derman’s writing style and use of language in this play comes off as both natural and deliberate as it paints a clear picture of today’s teens. This is only further emphasized by the flawless portrayals of Jensen’s Windy and Eigo’s Marti, both of whom represent a different side of American youth culture. Where Jensen’s Windy is awkward and unsure—something punctuated perfectly by the actor’s effortless incorporation of the phrases like “yeah, I don’t know” while she tries to figure out how to best articulate something—Eigo’s Marti is trendy, whiny, and a little bit rebellious, using her own catchphrase of “Oh my god” in an array of different situations to punctuate an array of different emotions, as many teens today do.
Yet the proper representation of typical teenagers only scratches the surface of the incredible work done by these actors. As the play progresses and those more stereotypical and easily compartmentalized versions of their characters begin to be stripped away by reality, Jensen and Eigo really get to shine. It’s a true testament to these actors’ talent that even as Windy becomes less unsure and innocent and Marti grows in insecurity and frustration, the core values and characteristics of the girls they portray is never lost.
Melanie Garber’s direction of this piece should also be emphasized in regards to the overall success of this production. With the use of texting and video chatting as a main means of communication in this play, Garber masterfully handles the task of demonstrating the distance technology places between us when we use it to communicate, while simultaneously emphasizing the moments of honesty and boldness that can happen between two people because of that distance in this play, something explored specifically in regards to Windy’s evolving relationship with AGBOI97.
As AGBOI97 never actually enters the world of the play, Garber represents this distance by setting AGBOI97 up in a very clearly defined area of space on the opposite side of the stage from Windy and her bedroom (the main set in this production.) This choice provides a fantastic depiction of the ways in which communicating through technology makes it feel as if we’re standing right beside someone who isn’t really there, as well as all the awkward moments that can derive from that.
This directing choice worked particularly well on these awkward moments, and specifically those Derman created in conjunction with the typical woes of texting. One awkward moment, for example, results in a character comically verbalizing the often-typed “hahahaha.” In another, AGBOI97 freezes on stage to represent radio silence after Windy types something particularly bold, only to unfreeze and say they stepped away from their phone. Moments like these demonstrated the cohesiveness of Derman’s words and Garber’s directing style, which paired perfectly in this piece.
Those in the industry know that producing new works comes with its own set of obstacles, but if “Girlish” is any indication of the style and quality of new work Fresh Ink Theatre Company produces, they are an organization to look out for.