BWW Reviews: Vibrant Actresses Bring EMOTIONAL CREATURE to Life at the Baxter
EMOTIONAL CREATURE is a new play by award-winning playwright and social activist Eve Ensler, exploring the secret lives of teenage girls around the world. Originally appearing in print as a collection of monologues, in a similar format to Ensler's ground-breaking THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES, the piece was workshopped for performance, playing commercial runs in the United States prior to this tour with a South African cast, which has had a stop in Johannesburg prior to its current run in Cape Town. Featuring an eclectic score by the ever-pleasing Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, the play is covers a vast range of issues in its 90-minute running time and, with director Jo Bonney and choreographer David Gouldie, rounding out the creative team, EMOTIONAL CREATURE is a piece of theatre that is incredibly well-tailored for its target audience of teenage girls, who will love this production should they have the opportunity to visit the Baxter Theatre during its short ten day run.
One of the most appealing aspects of EMOTIONAL CREATURE is the solid set of performances delivered by the actresses who bring the play to life. Each member of the six-person ensemble makes a vibrant contribution to this forthright exploration of the teenage psyche, which also has a fair deal of resonance for those who have aged out of those wild and giddy years. Barileng Malebye delivers a some of the play's most heart-wrenching moments as a Congolese girl sold into sex slavery, while Zakeeya Patel displays a remarkable versatility as an Iranian girl who must deal with the consequences of a nose job forced upon her by her parents and as a Bulgarian girl who is raped and forced into a life of prostitution. Lara Lipschitz has the job of deconstructing the suburban teenage archetype in a couple of the play's most memorable pieces, investing her monologues with a tragicomic delivery that creates not inconsiderable sympathy for the kind of girl has become almost completely unlikeable when seen through the relentlessly unforgiving and exploitative lens of reality television.
As a tomboyish, hip-hop diva, Karabo Tshikube plays no small part in holding the ensemble together emotionally, while Ratanang Mogotsi delivers an endearing turn as a pregnant girl trying to decide if she should keep her baby. Vuyelwa Maluleke rounds out the group as a selfie-obsessed teenager, also playing a girl who is struggling to come to terms with the genital mutilation that young women of her age face in her community. Separately, the actresses each have their moments, with dialect coach Fiona Ramsey helping them to shift seamlessly in vocal characterisation as they assume each persona - but as a team they are unstoppable. In art, as in life, women standing together are an indomitable force.
As is evident from the number of topics mentioned above, EMOTIONAL CREATURE is exhaustive in its interrogation of the global teenage girl experience. Eating disorders, lesbianism, puberty, peer pressure and schoolyard cliques are all also broached in the play, and all of them from a teenage perspective. The distillation of big issues into relatable teenage narratives works well for the most part, but some issues seem trivial or obscure in comparison with others - a sequence later on in the play in which a wedding dress plays a significant role springs to mind - while the way in which some issues are dealt with seems slightly reductive, which was how I perceived the handling of the issue of genital mutilation in the play to be. Towards the end of EMOTIONAL CREATURE, the parade of vignettes also starts to feel a little padded and the editing out of ten minutes of material into a tauter whole would probably serve the piece and its intended audience well.
The stagecraft of EMOTIONAL CREATURE comes together exquisitely. The scenic design and costumes designed by Thando Lobese effortlessly capture the essence of girlhood. The set in particular becomes a superb metaphor for the collective teenage female experience, a receptacle for all kinds of fragments that relate to the lives of the characters depicted on stage. Oliver Hauser's lighting design neatly shifts the play from sequence to sequence, supporting the rhythm of the play beautifully. Some marvellous effects are achieved with Marcel Wijnberger's projection design, which fill the large curved screen that frames the set. The sound design by Mark Malherbe matches the style of the play perfectly. The work of this team of technical artists represents a collective collaboration that truly enhances the production as a whole.
Whichever way you look at it, the world into which the next generation of young people is emerging is a warzone. In 1995, Ismail Serageldin, at the time the vice president of the World Bank, said that the wars of the next century will be fought over water. While conflicts around water certainly have emerged, our disrespect and hatred for that which is other than ourselves and the corporate and political systems that feed off of the entitlement that those feelings breed, are really what lies at the root of all of the wars currently being waged around the world. At a recent talk given by Ensler at the Baxter theatre just prior to the opening of EMOTIONAL CREATURE, the playwright reminded her audience of some horrifying scenarios that hanut our contemporary existence: that one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime; that millions of murders are committed in the name of corporate colonialism have desecrated the populations in the mineral-rich countries of Central Africa; and that the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigera, as well as many others, remains unresolved. What is worst of all, Ensler continued, is that we have made and live in a world where all of that is acceptable. Beyond our initial outrage, who among us is demanding change or resolution?
Ensler's play suggests that perhaps it is the teenage girls who see EMOTIONAL CREATURE, who start to engage with not only with the problems presented on stage, but also with the solutions that grappling with those problems in a creative manner must begin to form, might be the agents of change who shape a better tomorrow. For them, the play will be a conversation starter, an experience that validates the voice of the teenage girl and which prompts them to speak up. For those reasons, EMOTIONAL CREATURE is something that every teenage girl, every person raising a teenage girl and every person teaching a teenage girl should see.
EMOTIONAL CREATURE runs at the Baxter Flipside until 16 August, with shows at 11:00 and 18:30 on weekdays and at 14:00 and 18:30 on Saturday. Tickets cost R75 per person, with a concession price for school pupils of R25. Bookings can be made through Computicket, while block and school bookings can be made directly through Sharon Ward at the Baxter Theatre by e-mail or on 021 680 3962.