“I want to go home and cry. That’s the saddest thing EVER!” says a sweet young thing after leaving the Avalon Studio. “No dear, it isn’t.” I think to myself. “It ain’t Auschwitz!”
But then I think of Stanley Milgram.
In 1997, fourteen-year-old Reena Virk was surrounded and beaten by seven girls and one boy. And left to die. Two people from that group returned to drag her into the water and hold her head under. No one reported the incident to the police. No one. Reena’s body washed ashore eight days later.
At the time, the media portrayed the killers and those who took part in the beatings as monsters, devoid of humanity.
After WWII, the popular story was that the Nazis were monsters. They had to be monsters to have committed such atrocities. But social psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated in laboratory conditions that ordinary people could perform extraordinarily atrocious and cruel acts, simply under social pressure, or by appeal to authority.
Hannah Arendt observed Adolf Eichmann’s trial. Eichmann showed no trace of antisemitism, no guilt, no hatred. He did his duty, obeyed orders, obeyed the law. He was ordinary. He embodied, as Arendt put it, the “banality of evil”.
Author Joan Macleod (The Hope Slide, Amigo’s Blue Guitar) presents the trial of the murderers and assailants of Reena Virk through the eyes of a teenager, Braidie (played by Megan Carty). Braidie is a smug, self-absorbed pain-in-the-ass teenager not even her mother can love. Like Longfellow’s little girl with the curl, when Braidie is bad, she is horrid.
Braidie is mesmerized, not by the story of Virk the victim, but by Virk’s assailants. She is struck by how ordinary they appear. She intersperses a rambling tale of her close schoolmates, including her closest friend, Adrienne.
Surrounding Braidie is Chorus. At various times they represent Braidie’s friends, classmates, but also those standing trial.
At first, Chorus appears (deliberately) undifferentiated, ordinary. They wear exactly the same clothes; all wear their hair in pigtails; all wear the same makeup. When they portray the accused, they wear nearly identical masks.
But as Braidie says (as a member of the in-crowd), she can walk into a room of teenage girls she’s never seen before, and she can pick them out: the ones who will be ostracized.
And eventually, we, the audience, can do it too.
We can identify who these ordinary girls will pick on. Unmercifully. Year after year. And our skin crawls.
I’m impressed with this production of The Shape of the Girl, but why?
As a one-woman show plus chorus, the weight of the performance falls on Megan Carty as Braidie. For 80 minutes, it’s all Braidie, all the time, at various ages from 8 to 15. By 15, she has become truly obnoxious and self-absorbed. She assists and enables her friend Adrienne in persecuting their one-time friend, Sophie.
And yet Carty as Braidie got under my skin. Not to feel empathy for her, but to feel identity, as a human being. She’s SO ordinary. And she’s out of her depth. Sinking fast. Lost.
Chorus also impressed me. Their timing is so tight. Were they singing, I would say that they were dead on the beat. The “It” chorus particularly has the precision of a good drummer, while maintaining a lively, authentic interpretation. Kudos to director Paul Griffin for getting such a disciplined and believable performance from these young (Grade Ten) actors. Their own recent experience of their school years from ages 8 to 15 brings a verisimilitude that is raw and striking.
However, there were also times when the choreography of Chorus felt stiff, uncertain and contrived. When they filter into and out of a scene, individually or in small groups, they look and behave their age. But when they are moved from point A to point B en masse, they lose their believability and look at a loss for how to portray themselves as the teenagers they are.
It would have been easy to write a didactic play about the Virk murder. Macleod digs deeper, into the humanity that renders ordinary people capable of extraordinary cruelty. Carty and Chorus make Macleod’s characters flesh and blood. Our own. We may not want to know this about ourselves, and our children. But we need to understand before we can judge what to do about it.
Keep an eye out for some of these actors on our stages in the future.
After the show, someone said to Carty, “Go mingle.” To which she replied, “But I don’t know anyone!” Worry not, Megan Carty. You will. There were directors in the audience on opening night. They’ve taken notice.
Opening night was a sellout. Some of the audience had to sit on mats on the floor. Get your tickets early and come early for a chair.
The Shape of a Girl by Cart Before the Horse Theatre is playing at the Avalon Studio January 11th, 17th and 18th at 8PM and January 19th at 2PM. Tickets are $10 for students and seniors, and $15 for adults.