The Gut Girls
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
July 25, 2005
Flying Fig Theatre’s mission is to produce compelling stories about women. Their latest offering, The Guts Girls, most certainly fits that description. However, I must admit that while I was compelled by the themes in the story, my attention was not held by this production.
I’ve seen one other Flying Fig production and I thought it was great. However, this production is problematic several reasons. The play has a great message but the characters are merely mouthpieces of the playwright’s beliefs rather than real people. The women are a cross section of stereotypes and all the men are either wimps or jerks. Also, at almost three hours, it’s just too long. That fact coupled with so many scene changes, the heat, the noise of the fans and the hard-to-understand dialect makes The Guts Girls a bit hard to sit through.
Penned by the didactic British feminist playwright Sarah Daniels in 1988, this play has not been seen here in New York since 1993. Set in London in the early 1900s, it tells the true story of a group of women who work in the slaughterhouses. They are relegated to removing the entrails of the slaughtered beasts, hence their catchy nickname. They are paid relatively well for doing what they do and they have achieved a certain amount of financial independence. This independence, and the fact that these women are brash, fun-loving and do not fit into (nor do they wish to) the traditional view of what a “lady” should be, set them at odds with the establishment. In fact, they are considered to be one step above prostitutes.
Into their lives steps a wealthy woman (ironically she is herself financially independent and yet wants to take away the guts girls’ independence) who wishes to convert these rough women into more refined, God-fearing ladies. She opens a club for these women and teaches them how to sew undergarments (because it’s rumored that gut girls don’t wear any) and reads Bible passages to them. The playwright takes plenty of time establishing just how independent these women are so when it comes time to break their spirits they have that much further to fall.
Time is an issue in this production. The playwright spends so much time establishing character and giving exposition that literally nothing happens for the entire first hour before the intermission. Things really start to pick up after intermission—we’re finally given some conflict as we see how the fate of these women will be decided, but that only takes about an hour. The final hour consists of mostly unnecessary wrap-ups that squash the spirit of the climactic middle hour.
This is ironic because the squashing of the spirit is the major theme of the play. These girls were liberated from societal norms and that made many people want to crush them. The issues raised here are still very relevant today. Daniels’s dialogue is quite stirring and often funny and I think the story is well worth telling, but the sheer girth of the script is overwhelming. I felt my own spirit was crushed by the end of the performance. I wonder if the play could be cut down to half its running time (with permission from the playwright) without losing any of the play’s poignancy or effecting its message.
Readers should know that the Chocolate Factory is not air-conditioned. This really didn’t bother me at first but as the night wore on I became more aware of the heat. Also, most of the actors use a Cockney dialect and that forces most people in an American audience to have to listen just a little bit closer, which is fine; but the theatre has several fans set up that are blowing full-blast which caused me to lose a lot of dialogue. I could only strain to hear for so long before I became exhausted.
The ten-member ensemble gets a real workout, playing double roles in lovely costumes (courtesy of Deb E. Miner) that plant them firmly in the period. Some highlights include Irene McDonald’s self-righteous patroness Lady Helena, Soraya Broukhim’s transformation from a shy, obedient wife to an outspoken woman, and Tiffany Green’s portrayal of the strong leader of the group who is forced to give in.
Director Michaela Goldhaber does a good job putting her vision for the show into action. She wisely places scenes around the playing area in multiple settings to eliminate some of the scene changes and uses lighting to draw the eye. She also does good job of eliciting an even acting style from the whole cast and vocal coach Linda Jones keeps everyone pretty much on the same page as far as dialects.
This will not be the last Flying Fig production that I see. I think they have a lot to offer the theatre scene. As for this production, perhaps they should take a cue from the title characters and gut this beast of a play and just give us the meat.