“Girls” at Yale Rep Brilliantly Turns Tragedy on Its Head

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GIRLS (2019)
Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

It’s a good thing that Girls which is having its world premiere at Yale Rep through Saturday, Oct. 26 is subtitled “after The Bacchae by Euripides” and not as a new version of the ancient Greek tragedy.

While author Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has kept the broad outline of the plot, he has taken this play which many consider the best Greek tragedy that we know and turned it on its head. This is more comedy than tragedy.

Not only are there many laughs, but the idea of the tragic hero and catharsis so prevalent in Greek tragedy (think of Oedipus, Medea, Antigone) are totally lacking.

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce” is a quote from Karl Marx. Perhaps Jacobs-Jenkins views our modern time as the farcical repetition of the original.

To understand how brilliantly he has converted the original, you need a broad outline of the original plot. The young god Dionysus (who is also the patron god of theater as well as wine) had a mortal mother whose royal family refused to acknowledge Dionysus’ godhood. He returns home to seek revenge which takes the form of driving all the women, including his aunts, into a bacchanalia of dancing. As they become more and more frenzied, they kill the king.

In Girls, Dionysus is now Deon, who has returned home (“a public park outside of a town just like this”) to seek revenge for the death of his mother. His mother was killed just before giving birth to him, by the wife of her lover. He sets up his DJ equipment, begins his play list, and soon the women of the town are drawn to the music. As the evening goes on, more and more arrive and soon the music, the alcohol and the drugs push them over the edge.

As they dance, they tell us stories of their lives; in many cases they are stories about powerlessness, as well as being ignored, passed over, or generally viewed as secondary people. They have been drawn to the event for a variety of reasons including one who wants to induce labor and others looking for partners. But many talk of slights perpetuated upon them by the male dominated society. It was so in the times of the Greeks and it feels very current today.

Rather than deal with a royal family, Jacobs-Jenkins has made Deon part of a powerful family in this town, wherever it is. His grandfather has been the sheriff of the town who has stepped down and named a non-family member as acting sheriff. But Theo, his grandson, desperately wants the job while his mother (Gaga) acknowledges during the event that she would like to be sheriff. Of course, she was never even considered because she is a woman.

Theo is shown as a very modern character; as you watch him memories of many perpetrators of mass shootings will flash before your eyes. He seems to live in his room, tied to the computer and his live rants via media to his “followers.”  He is fascinated and obsessed by guns and what he views as “sin.”  The idea of Deon’s party and its drugs and freedom is abhorrent to him. He would happy to kill them all.

At times, the point of telling this story becomes lost in the rave type atmosphere. The choreography by Raja Feather Kelly becomes both more and more sexual and at the same time, more and more repetitious.

The production values are excellent, as you might expect at Yale.  Adam Rigg has created a marvelous set; it is verdant and lush looking like a sylvan glen. The stage is deeply raked which must pose a challenge to the dancers to keep their balance. Yi Zhao has added lighting that reminds you of any disco, rave or other event. It contributes to the feeling that all is going out of control. Projection designer David Bengali lets us view Theo’s rants (he sometimes forgets to turn off the camera) from above the party.

As Deon, Nicholas L. Ashe is charming and androgynous as well as manipulative. It is satisfying to see him convince Theo, a fine Will Seefried, to dress in drag to spy on the party.

Jeanine Serralles is Gaga, Theo’s mother and aunt to Deon. Her performance is what helps to hold the piece together.

Is this a finished play? Few world premieres are and this one needs additional work. At times the dancing goes on too long and the plot becomes confused. We lose track of who everyone is and their relationships.

What should be the cathartic ending lacks any sense of tragedy or even sadness. It seems totally anticlimactic.

Yet, this production directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz and her production team has so many creative and funny touches, that it won’t be until later, as you thinking about the play, that you realize that you are not sure what really went on.

For tickets, visitYale Rep or call 203-432-1234.


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