By Amy Rutherford. Directed by Anita Rochon. A Studio 58 production, in association with Touchstone Theatre. At Studio 58 on Saturday, November 17. Continues until December 2
The exquisite pain of a girl growing up—Canadian playwright Amy Rutherford captures it in all its excruciating, awkward detail in her new play Mortified.
Studio 58 brings her coming-of-age story to life with strong lead performances and a production that's as metaphorically visionary as it is physically charged.
In it, an unnamed older woman (Lindsey Angell) reflects on—and goes back to confront—her younger self (Emily Jane King), after running into an old boyfriend in the mall. She’s still traumatized, more than two decades later, by the memories that play out in front of her—namely a naive, overscheduled 13-year-old hooking up with a 21-year-old dirtbag named Ty (Isaac Mazur).
In Pam Johnson’s brilliant set, the play takes place surreally on the bottom of an old swimming pool, with a diving board overhead, chipped-out blue tiles along its rim, and watery light dancing on its walls. It transforms easily from high-school hallways to synchronized swimming meets to the lonely headspace where a girl feels like she’s sinking, alone. The play’s sinister, stiletto-wearing swim coach (Jessie Liang) often prowls the diving board above her.
An ever-shifting chorus, playing everyone from dance clubbers to students in sweat suits, moves along the action and the set pieces at a buzzy pace. At one point the group holds a sheet, stuffies, and pillows aloft to give us an overhead view into the girl’s bed. At another, they don satin and nose clips to perform a slapstick synchronized swimming routine. Between director Anita Rochon’s blocking and choreographer Amber Funk Barton’s physical chops, the piece is a kinetic marvel.
But it wouldn't all work without the natural, nuanced performance by King. As gangly as a fawn, and always wearing jelly shoes that remind us she’s on the edge of childhood, she finds an honesty and guileless curiosity. Most important to Rutherford, it seems, is that she is never a victim. When she makes mistakes—and dear God, they’re whoppers—we understand why. She’s feeling alienated in a new school, she’s in a perfectionist sport, and she’s constantly being fed sexualized images of teens.
Angell, too, finds raw, real-feeling emotion as her older, together-but-falling-apart self. Ian Butcher paints a fantastic portrait of loserdom as the middle-aged, and utterly untormented Ty. And Mazur builds threat behind his dense man-child—the kind you’ll instantly recognize from the mall, complete with five-sizes-too-big jeans hanging off his ass.
The play goes to some incredibly dark places, but Rutherford, surprisingly, finds a lot of laughter here. Sometimes it comes from the Girl’s Cleaveresque dad (Nolan McConnell-Fidyk), who thinks a good game of Boggle can solve anything; sometimes it comes from the absurdities of the time-travelling premise (note the reaction when the older Woman whips out her cellphone to high schoolers who have only ever seen a pager). Rutherford has a knack for vivid and unpretentious detail; we know Ty smells like the “inside of a cardboard box”. And she’s unafraid to go there: in one scene, King’s character learns how to use a tampon.
Come to think of it, the very fearlessness of Mortified is the biggest strength in a play that has many. In this #MeToo moment, Rutherford is drawing from real-life experience to shade in the complexities of consent and shame. And 25 years later, society is sending teen girls more mixed messages than ever. If you know one, or you were one who made mortifying mistakes of your own, you need to see this show.