Top to bottom, start to finish, What Every Girl Should Know is an excellent piece of theater. The quality of the production design and calibre of the production overall lifts it well above the average FringeNYC fare.
The playwright, Monica Byrne, has an extremely impressive list of credits and honors and, watching this piece, it is not difficult to see why. She has masterfully drawn a smart, funny, air-tight play and, from the first lines, we feel we are in the safe hands of an exceptionally talented writer.
The 90-ish minute play takes place exclusively in a four person dorm in a Catholic girls reformation institution in 1914. It's never quite clear what the institution is, but, as one of the characters says, "Didn't you know? We're all very bad here." The truth is, this being 1914, that these girls have been placed here for "sexual irregularity" primarily after being the victims of various assaults by men; things that we would balk at locking women up for now (I hope). The story follows the room's four occupants, four girls teetering on teenagerhood, as they try to understand their sexuality and the rules of the world they live in. After hearing about Margaret Sanger, who is passing out "illicit" pamphlets regarding birth control, they make her their patron saint and begin weaving a fantastic part-mythical/part-real world through which to understand their experiences.
It's a timely piece and it was poignant watching it mere blocks from the Margaret Sanger Planned Parenthood center. At this strange moment in our history when, despite women's sometime liberation, the government is trying to cut Planned Parenthood funding and Texas is trying to do goodness knows what to it's female half, this play strikes an important chord. "Look," it seems to say, "Remember where we were when women lacked both knowledge and control over their bodies. How dare you suggest we go back there?"
The casting is nothing short of outstanding. Danielle Beckmann as the warm, sexual Theresa, C.C. Kellogg as the sharp, proud Joan, Maggie Raymond as the tough Anne, and Emma Meltzer as the wonderfully funny youngest member, Lucy, all bring a wondrous depth and honesty to their characters. Each alone brings a raw emotional truth to their work, but the charming and vibrant chemistry amongst the four makes us want to watch them all day.
The director, Jaki Bradley deftly conducts these strong elements and knits them together into a strong event.
Whether the intermittent dance moments were Bradley or Byrne's brainchild, the choreography by Jeff and Rick Kuperman is genuinely lovely. I can't say that their place in the story ever quite gelled for me, but they were a viscerally moving addition and I was glad they were there.
As mentioned, the set, costume, lighting, sound design (including striking songs by Amanda Palmer) was especially strong and all the more impressive knowing the 15-minute set-up/break-down FringeNYC parameters they are working with.
What Ever Girl Should Know is not a revolutionary story. It's one we've heard before and, no doubt will hear again. We see the ending coming. But as long as the war over women's reproductive rights rages on, it's a story people need to keep telling. We can only hope that artists as skillful as this team will continue to turn their attention to it. I hope this show gets done in every town in Texas.
As the girls might say: God bless Margaret Sanger and God bless this talented team.