FRINGE TORONTO: 36 Little Plays About Hopeless Girls, Review by Evan Webber

36 Little Plays About Hopeless Girls

Written and Directed by Aurora Stewart de Peña
Presented by Birdtown and Swanville

Featuring: Rebecca Applebaum, Lauren Bride, Jolene De Voe, Sochi Fried, Cara Gee, Julia Lederer, Donna Maloney, Laura McCoy, Nika Mistruzzi, Monique Moses, Liz Peterson, Aurora Stewart de Peña, and Nicole Stamp.

Presented at Bread and Circus. 299 August Avenue


Wednesday July 15th midnight
Friday July 17th at 6:30pm

Writer/director Aurora Stewart de Peña's 36 Little Plays About Hopeless Girls is about additive sadness and small choices that appear hardly to be choices at all. If you’re a person, you’ll probably like it. Instead of landing on the planet of sadness, 36 Little Plays stays in orbit above its thematic centre. It keeps lightly to the clouds, but its endless flight, while not exposing the interior, surveys much of the dark territory below.

At times the writing is biting and familiar, at other times it sounds like bad TV and in rare (quite rare) moments it actually is really, really bad. Like most popular satire, it only ever fails when it betrays how it secretly endorses or even craves the power it means to ridicule. Stewart de Peña deserves real credit for both noticing and trying to resolve this problem. Her solution: applying the principle of excess. Like most principles it would work better if it were more rigorously upheld in the quality of the performance – the changing state of the performer’s bodies, for instance – but it’s still a sound conceptual solution.

So the show is piled on methodically: a voice-over is followed by a scene, followed by a dance which is followed by another voice-over and in every situation the performers (almost too many to keep track of) seem to have been left to determine the style of the show entirely on their own. The clash of their idiomatic verdicts, which range from the melodramatic to the fearful, the trembling, the all-to-real, and the awkward, are what deliver the essential conflict of the show: not only do the people in this play not know how to solve their problems, they don’t even know how to be in their problems.

In the final moments, the hopeless girls are sleeping like abused domestics in some Dickensian hell, and one dreams of a creature entirely unlike her who comes from another world. It just so happens to be the same person as the only multi-cast performer in the show who’s also played the singing orphan, the bisexual, the pretentious artist, the one who smells bad, the one who is perpetually abused and excluded from the world the rest of the characters inhabit . It’s a gesture towards a possible reconciliation of difference, maybe even the emergence of self-awareness. It seems unlikely though, that the girls will be able to escape the crushing gravity of their own girlhood.

Is it worth mentioning the many similarities between this play and the text of Rainer Fassbinder’s 1971 play Blood On The Cat’s Neck in which a beautiful extraterrestrial woman-creature, (a blonde model look-alike) appears in the midst of a group of grimy, post-war West Germans? (I wasn’t born in time to see Blood On The Cat’s Neck, but this only makes the similarities even more eerie.) Needless to say, when Fassbinder’s hopeless girls and boys end their evening together, they really end it. His English translator Denis Calandra paraphrases Fassbinder’s preliminary notes from a film of the same period thus: ‘Fassbinder said he wanted to allow his audience, without any help from him, to make the choice between a short, fulfilled life, or a longer existence, which would for the most part be “alienated” and “lived outside a fully conscious state.’

Given the rest of the work, the sudden, ambiguous optimism at the end of 36 Little Plays rings uncomfortably like something written as if reassure the people whose lives it’s just been so methodically dissecting, namely: us; the performers; the playwright. This can be diagnosed as a structural problem: the play trades on a classical form but it cuts off at the climax. True to itself, the play offers anything but an obvious ending. But for ourselves, and of the creator, we can’t help wonder: if not a classical conclusion, what, exactly, happens next?

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