Natalie Rine, Contributing Critic - New York City
Gina Femia’s extraordinary new high school-set play “The Virtuous Fall of The Girls From Our Lady of Sorrows” utilizes a simple premise to dive headfirst into the complex, all-too disheartening vortex known as the patriarchy. Set in the not-so-distant past immediately following 9/11, the play follows an adolescent group of girls trying to stage an original adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Measure For Measure” at their all-girls Catholic school. Most well known as being a classic “problem play,” “Measure For Measure” sits uneasily between tragedy and comedy, combining the two genres to raise questions about morality, justice, and the intersection of religion and the law, particularly in regard to women; it is precisely this same mixture that Ms. Femia evokes flawlessly in her new play being presented currently by Spicy Witch Productions.
At The Flea Theater, the tiny stage space has been transformed by scenic designer Lindsay Genevieve Fuori into a transmogrifying high school, vacillating from nun office to rehearsal space to assembly and sanctuary space seamlessly by the simple rearrangement of a few key scenic items. The predominant element remains stationary and visible the entire time though: white roses scattered all over the walls of the stage. With some close together, some further apart, the arbitrary placement of such striking flowers against black walls presents a strong allegory for the young women in the play. While the white roses at first glance appear homogenous, being of the same color and same flower type, upon closer and longer inspection, the adage is true that no two are alike, each being singularly crafted and placed sporadically and uniquely. Further highlighted by the rockstar tumultuous lighting design of Yi-Chung Chen, this backdrop is perfect for the blossoming, riotous energy of the young girls navigating the world stuck between strict homogeneity of their school uniforms and shared religion and their own unique flairs and moral questioning and conundrums. Just like the roses on the walls, each girl is bound by sameness and differences alike, creating a beautiful tapestry of ephemeral, difficult existence. As one of the characters so succinctly puts it with the bluntness of youth, “F*** roses, they just die.”
The show’s six performers are classmates (plus one hilarious multiple-Sister-playing Mia Canter), bound together by their school Our Lady of Sorrows, and boy do they have sorrows. From grappling with post-9/11 trauma to questions of sexuality to using a tampon for the first time, these characters run the gauntlet from serious to comedic in effortless, witty dialogue and delicious monologues. The marvelous actors of “The Virtuous Fall” feel like unapologetic, searching acolytes in the grip of religious, educational, and societal higher beings, seeking a way out or at least a better understanding of where they all fit in.
There’s Minnie (Renita Lewis), the burgeoning playwright grappling with the death of her father in 9/11 and leading her peers like a young Joan of Arc with a pen and a vision, shepherding her younger sister Dove (Shavana Clarke) along the way. There’s outwardly tough, inwardly vulnerable Imogene (Alia Guidry), whose monologue struggling between who the church and her heart tell her to love and to be is a heartbreaking cry to the heavens, “I’m not a sin, God. Right? I’m not.” Her best friend Jenny (Sarah Rosengarten) is a feminine foil to the androgynous Imogene, hilariously outgoing and stealing her heart as well as they audience’s. Tough-nut Maxx (Ashil Lee) goes from hilarious sulking to genuine compassion, embodying the full complexities of a teenager who instinctually understands the system isn’t on her side. Doe-eyed, new freshman Mathilda (Pearl Shin) offers a foil to Maxx’s jaded outlook through a masterful, refreshing portrayal of a girl caught between her beliefs and new friends. Shin’s arc is subtlety stirring and resonant, proving she is a powerhouse performer not to be underestimated.
Mia Canter as multiple Sisters guides and chastises the students along the way, providing an omniscient embodiment of the very systems the girls are struggling against; in different scenes she teaches religion and morality, history, chemistry, and English literature, all subjects in real life that her students are finding do not support them as modern, questioning young women. Do you know how many orifices a woman’s body has? Do you know why the one female protagonist taught in literature is in “The Scarlett Letter” where the woman is a focal point of moral shame? Do you know why we can’t see souls yet insist they exist? Our young cohort clash right into all these issues and more (What defines life? Where do we hold love?), but instead of showing this as just a youth problem, Ms. Femia’s play doesn’t let us off the hook so easy, exemplifying society’s problematic double standards through Canter’s main Sister, Sister Ignatius. Explaining to a pining Mathilda that she should pursue being a nun, she reveals when she was younger she wanted to be a priest. “I bet you’d give a great homily,” Mathilda coos in awe. But Sister Ignatius shuts her down, declaring firmly that she had been wrong, that “the rules are there because there are things larger than us at stake…I was just a girl.” A few scenes later, when we see for the first time in the play Sister Ignatius standing at her teaching pulpit, delivering a lesson on the morality and decision-making in
Shakespeare’s “Measure For Measure,” it is only then that the full weight of the play crashes down on us. Her speech and teachings are as eloquent as any homily, her shepherding of young believers and provision of guidance and counsel to each of her students are just as needed as a priest’s to his congregation…yet she has resigned herself to not just inhabiting but deserving a lower-rank within the system that she now defends.
Femia’s play is a burgeoning rose ready to enjoy full bloom and a wide audience for many years to come. This important, honest, and youthful point of view and discussions in the play provide no easy answers for a world that attacks and belittles women and minorities every day, but as the final scene’s brave young actors triumphantly proclaim, “I am not a sin.” And they are not going anywhere.
The Virtuous Fall of The Girls From Our Lady of Sorrows
“The Virtuous Fall of The Girls From Our Lady of Sorrows” by Gina Femia is directed by Blayze Teicher. “The Virtuous Fall of The Girls From Our Lady of Sorrows” stars Mia Canter, Shavana Clarke, Alia Guidry, Ashil Lee, Renita Lewis, Sarah Rosengarten, and Pearl Shin.
The design team includes Yi-Chung Chen (Lighting Design), Lindsay Genevieve Fuori (Scenic Design), Sophie Golomb (Graphic Design), Carsen Joenk (Sound Design), Megan McQueeney (Props Design), and Noelle Quanci (Costume Design).
“The Virtuous Fall of The Girls From Our Lady of Sorrows” runs at The Flea Theater (20 Thomas Street, New York, NY 10007) through June 1. Tickets for “The Virtuous Fall of The Girls From Our Lady of Sorrows” can be purchased at the Flea box office by visiting this website or calling 212-226-0051. For more information, please visit www.spicywitchproductions.com
Photo of Shavana Clarke, Alia Guidry, Renita Lewis, and Pearl Shin by Phoebe Brooks.