Review: GIRLS at Yale Repertory Theater

By: Oct. 15, 2019
Review: GIRLS at Yale Repertory Theater

Don't expect Lena Dunham or any of her posse of Brooklynites to show up on the stage of the Yale Rep's University Theatre at any point during the world premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins mad dream of a new play just because it's called "Girls."

That's not to say that Hannah, Marnie or Shoshanna wouldn't respond to irresistible summons of the god Dionysius, calling all of the women-in this case, girls of every age, race, size and sexual persuasion-of the local community for a night of ribald dancing and debauchery on the side of a mountain. It's here where Dionysius, in the person of DJ/rapper/host/flower child Deon, will tempt and taunt all of these women, many of them his aunts, as he reconnects with the spirit of his murdered mother to avenge her death.

For many theatergoers there should be a spark of recognition. This sounds a lot like Euripides' final work, "the Bacchae," which Jacobs-Jenkins has adapted in collaboration with director Lileana Blain-Cruz into a deliciously wry music-theater-movement piece with a thoroughly modern and distinctly feminist flavor. And it is this movement that proves key to the evening's enjoyment. Choreographer Raja Feather Kelly has devised what almost seems like an endless series of swift moving dances that compels the action across the stage and showcases the women cavorting in groups large and small.

For a 2,000-plus year old Greek classic, 'The Bacchae" lends itself splendidly as the basis for "Girls." While it remains at heart a revenge play, Jacob-Jenkins and Blain-Cruz focus more on the impact Deon's presence has on the women of the community, as their free-spirited drinking and continuing submission to the beat of Deon's playlist allows them to shed inhibitions, set themselves free from the constant gaze of their men and reveal more and more of their feelings and secrets in a series of direct asides to the audience.

Whereas the Greeks utilized their choruses as a single character with the individual speakers melding into one voice, here the creators gradually allow each individual woman to become a separate, albeit sometime superficial, character. By the end of the evening many of the women have taken on specific personalities which we recognize through distinctive characterizations and the dazzling costumes of Montana Levi Blanco, which would be welcome at both elegant cocktail parties and at festive revels. In addition, the playwright notes that the Greeks relied on men to play all of the roles, while here it is women who take over 'The Bacchae" and command the audience's attention.

As the play depicts the progression of this version of a good old-fashioned "womyn's festival," a large video screen enlightens the audience as to Deon's real agenda. His mother was killed, with Deon still in the womb, by the jealous wife of the son of the local sheriff after the ne'er do well son had taken Deon's mother as a mistress. Sent away apparently under the protection of his grandfather, the then-sheriff, Deon has returned for the first time to the mountainside forest where he encounters the spirit of his mother, bearing a striking resemblance to "Lost's" famous smoke monster and with its own set of hypnotic powers.

Deon's plan, however, requires him to challenge his completely unaware half-brother, the stereotypical high school misogynistic white-privileged jock Theo, to leave his devices and video games and venture into the "Deon"-ysian frenzy, where bloody vengeance will finally be realized.

The action occurs on Adam Rigg's vivid and breathtaking set, complete with an elaborate forest, rock formations, a glen where Deon can park his amp and, of course, plenty of space for frolicking and traipsing under, over and through the bushes. A row of mirrors, adding to the depth of the set, stretches along what appears to be the back of the stage of Yale's University Theatre, only to be revealed as Theo's bedroom, with its obviously panoramic view from the mountainside. Yi Zhao's lighting design plays an essential role as the festival proceeds from afternoon into evening, while Palmer Heffernan's sound design manages the magical and not-so-magical sounds of the forest in conjunction with the steady beat-beat-beat of Deon's trance-inducing EDM.

While it is fun to watch these girls of all sexes connect with their inner desires, Jacobs-Jenkins does devote some time to Deon's attempts to convince a very reluctant Theo to participate in his plan. Nicholas L. Ashe's Deon is hardly the licentious Dionysius that one might expect. Instead, he comes across as a quiet, determined, confident college kid, more regretful than jealous of missing out on the life that Theo enjoyed, but sneakily sinister nonetheless. Will Seefried is properly petulant, boastful and athletic as Theo, who is quite content just counting the days until he can take over as sheriff from his grandfather, the tottering, dissembling Dada of Tom Nelis and the temporary acting sheriff of Haynes Thigpen, who is fine in several parts, including one that plays on his job of cowherd.

Jeanine Serralles stands out as Gaga, the most outspoken of Dada's daughters and Theo's mother, who at least initially tries to resist the compelling spell of Deon's musical magic but who ultimately succumbs and reveals some of the rather unlikable parts of her character. With a trail of Light Brown hair, Serralles's Gaga offers occasional hints of her namesake, while clearly enjoying her status as one of Dada's favorites.

Jacobs-Jenkins has also provided quite a few laugh-inducing monologues for a number of the women, on a plethora of diverse topics including unfaithful husbands, sisters and food that pour out all at once in dizzying detail or are stretched across the evening as these "girls" get increasingly inebriated or stoned.

The work is set in an America that clearly oppresses women and suffers from various shades of toxic masculinity, as exemplified by the studly Theo who pulls a gun fairly early in the play, but as we learn picked up the habit from his clearly obsessed overly knowledgeable mother, Gaga, whose expertise with a progressively powerful stash of weaponry reflects her years of repressed anger but will also contribute to her ultimate tragedy.

Deon, though initially presented as sympathetic to the women's submission, is on his own finally nasty and questionable mission. His attempts to mesmerize his half-brother are fascinating, though seemingly endless, until the foolish gamester finally succumbs to Deon's fateful and emasculating suggestions. After all, this is supposed to be a tragedy-not just a Greek one, but one that we can see growing out of some distinctly contemporary minds wishing to see if something from 415 B.C. can have resonance today.

"Girls" runs through October 26 at Yale Repertory Theater's University Theater. For tickets, contact the Yale Rep Box Office at 203.432.1234.