Presented by Fresh Ink Theatre
By Alexa Derman
Directed by Melanie Garber
Dramaturgy by Corianna Moffatt and Ramona Ostrowski
Critique by Kitty Drexel
Trigger warning: catfishing, dubious consent, underage romantic activity
(Boston, MA) My cousin Aubrey* owned a coveted Samantha Parkington American Girl Doll growing up. I hadn’t known what jealousy was until I saw Samantha in Aubrey’s perfect, skinny arms. Sure, I occasionally suffered a nervous desire to own things that I couldn’t have such as Gap jeans or the a Skip-It, but I didn’t really know what wanting was until I espied Samantha in all her plastic, toothy glory. Samantha was everything Aubrey was, and nothing I’d ever be. I needed an AG doll. I’d die without one.
Fresh Ink’s production of Girlish explores the societal construct built around AG dolls. Samantha is a status symbol for the prettiness, social skills, and wealth of adults that young girls attempt to emulate. My young self saw Aubrey with her Samantha doll and knew, just knew that there was a life of privilege from which I was excluded. An AG doll was a metaphor for wealth and class – things that were always out of my clumsy, geeky, middle-class reach. It broke my damn heart when my mother didn’t buy me one… She acquired Aubrey’s castoff Barbie Dream House instead. Girlish reminded me of an unrequited neediness that I’d almost forgotten. My life is still ruined forever. I am writing this critique from the Underworld. Because I died. I literally died without Samantha. Thanks, Mom.
Girlish revolves around teenage Windy (Atlee Jensen) and her AG doll fanaticism. In the AG online community, Windy finds her people. Her Instagram has oodles of followers; she has all the dolls. Best friend Marti (Willa Eigo) attempts to understand but can’t wrap her head around Windy’s chosen lifestyle. When Windy befriends online personality AGBOI97 (Dylan C. wack) on Instagram, Windy and Marti are shaken. We discover whether their bond is thicker than Plasticine wrapping.
Alexa Derman approaches Windy and Marti’s character from a perspective of respect. These are two teenage girls who are busy becoming themselves and Derman doesn’t think any less of them for it. Some audience members might be quick to overlook Girlish as fluff, but they shouldn’t. Teenage angst is a precursor for adult emotional stability. If we don’t respect girls during their process of becoming, they won’t expect respect when they are grown. Give girls the same benefit of a doubt that boys take for granted.
Jensen is disarmingly sincere as Windy. Windy is supposed to be a socially naive young woman unaware of her privilege but she reads as generous and faithful. Derman exudes a purity; the kind of purity that consent and online protection laws intend to preserve.
Marti is Windy’s foil. Eigo plays Marti as street smarter than Windy; she’s a young woman caught between childhood and adulthood. Eigo gives Marti edges and an insecure bravada. Marti doesn’t know what she’s doing but she’s going to keep going no matter what.
Wack is a charismatic villain. You want to hate him. You know he’s up to no good, but he’s so sympathetic that you can’t help but wonder what kind of person he is when he isn’t leading girls astray.
*Spoiler Alert* Girlish briefly discusses dubious consent, queer catfishing and grooming of underage girls. This play contains these things but it isn’t about them. It is about the friendship of Windy and Marti. Unfortunately, the play hits it’s climax and we’re left confused because not enough attention is paid in the moment to the reveals that the climax rises from.
That being stated, the skirting over of abuse makes their final confrontation and culminating roleplay scenes less effective. We know that Windy and Marti are angry/sad at each other but aren’t sure why. Clarification of Windy’s reaction to her abuse (even if it’s shock) and Marti’s reaction to Windy may help stabilize the the story. It will certainly help the audience absorb this new information. The friendship should remain central to the story but not so central that the audience will miss these character developing plot points.
Girlish has a scenic design that is surprisingly complicated. All of those AG dolls could not have been easy to acquire. The room decor that looks like an 80’s picture day monster vomited into a purple womb (in the best way). Brava to Michelle Sparks.
Girlish has a natural comedic nostalgia to it. It makes us adults** remember how simple but blindingly complicated adolescence is. There are so many more hurdles to maneuver now in the internet age. We took for granted that the terrors around us were human. People haven’t changed but the world sure has. Girlish is an important story for anyone who has children, might have children, or knows children. That’s everyone.
* Name changed to protect me from my extended family.
**In every adult, there is a kid wondering how the Hell we got here.