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Theatre in Review: Phoenix Rising: Girls and the Secrets We Keep (Theatre Row)

Photo: Jana Marcus

The title of Laura Gosheff's new play sounds like an Eve Ensler-style all-girl confessional, and at times Phoenix Rising is reminiscent of Emotional Creature, Ensler's look at the struggles of adolescents. However, Gosheff adds a New Age twist: The play begins with Kristen Vaughan, playing the Goddess Mother, entering -- sporting a flowing cape, carrying an enormous book -- and looking for all the world like Harry Potter's Professor Minerva McGonagall (minus the pointed hat). The rest of the cast are lined up at stage center, speaking in rhymed couplets: "I'm frozen and numbed by unmet needs/Trapped by my longings like an endless greed/A bottomless void I destructively feed, to numb the pain of being me/The greater the desperation the more my tattered soul bleeds." The prospect of listening to this sort of doggerel all night long wasn't doing much for my tattered soul, I can tell you.

Anyway, soon we are into the play proper -- complete with plain old prose dialogue -- which is set in a high school somewhere. The class, run by Grace (also played by Vaughan), consists of five girls, each of whom has been branded a troublemaker. We are introduced to four of them: Angela is a highly literate nihilist with a savage tongue; she quotes Steinbeck, Orson Welles, and Pat Benatar. Carmen is a boy-crazy featherbrain, despite her devotion to painting and her thankless role as her family's caretaker. Edwina seems much younger than the others, especially when she dresses up as Hello Kitty for Halloween; still, she has been caught shoplifting. Lola is blatantly promiscuous. "I'm sick of being crucified for liking sex," she says, daring someone to contradict her. Instead, Grace notes, helpfully, "Society has historically been unable to reconcile the complexities of female sexuality, which Freud reduced to the Madonna/whore complex."

One thing is clear: This isn't Algebra II. Although the class is never named or defined, it appears to be some kind of bizarre and reckless form of group therapy, in which Grace aims to cure these troubled young ladies of whatever ails them by helping them to get in touch with their inner divinity. As she notes, her mother "started a feminist art collective in the late sixties, where all these creative women who were writers and painters and dancers and musicians and herbalists and healers would all come and hang out in our home...They taught me how to invoke the presence of the Sacred Feminine -- the wisdom of the Great Mother in all her beautiful forms -- Shakti, Ora, Gaia, Kali, and Mary, to name a few." Really, there are times when one wonders if Laura Gosheff isn't a pseudonym for Paul Rudnick, pulling our legs with such exotic spiritual name-dropping.

Apparently working without a therapist's license, Grace hands out cards to her charges, each of which features the name of a feminine archetype. Then, invoking her personal goddess, each girl acts out a mythical story that addresses the source of her anguish -- Edwina's conflicted sexuality, Angela's chaotic home life with her schizophrenic mother, Lola's struggle with her slutty, possessive mother. The playwright adopts a wildly elevated tone in these sequences, which border on self-parody in their bodice-ripping intensity: "His dark breath filled her lungs and all the color drained from her face. The Chupacabra's curse echoed across the marsh. 'Now defiled you are cleaved unto me, dear child. Your dragon can't save you now'."

Gosheff, who also directed, stages these sequences for full operatic effect; still Phoenix Rising is never so glib as when it is detailing their curative effect. A near-hysterical Carmen faces recovered memories of being sexually assaulted as a young girl by her father; it's the kind of revelation that would reasonably leave one shaking and traumatized. Instead, she flounces around the stage in a fury because one of the girls comments that she resembles a certain famous artist. ("Oh my God, I do not look like Frida Kahlo! She had one eyebrow!")

There may be no more well-intentioned play in town than Phoenix Rising; the author's concern for her young characters is palpable, and the problems she names -- abuse, mental illness, and homophobia, among others -- are very real. But her characters are thinly conceived case histories ("Did I mention that my mother is fucking our minister?") and the dialogue is a string of pop-spirituality clich├ęs. (A better name for it might be Teenagers Who Run With the Wolves.) Vaughan speaks her lines in tones so soothing they amount to a kind of vocal Valium, but the other actresses display enough flashes of real temperament that one hopes to see them again. They include Julia Peterson as Angela, Miranda Roldan as Carmen, Nichollette Shorts as Edwina, and Whitney Biancur as Lola. The fifth member of the class, Jolie, is in a coma; her spirit hovers around the action, unseen by the others, occasionally making comments. It's a nothing role and it's not surprising that Rachel Haas can't do much with it.

Phoenix Rising comes with a pretty solid production design, including Sheryl Liu's black-walled classroom set, Seth Reiser's variegated lighting design, and Angela Harner's costumes, which neatly differentiate each character. (The bulk of the play is set in 1985, which explains the references to I'm Okay, You're Okay; The Brady Bunch; Xaviera Hollander; CBGB; and other period ephemera.) Similarly, Julian Evans' sound design mixes the Heart classic "Barracuda" and Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon" with a broad palette of effects that includes thunder, rain, and the ambient sounds of a high school hallway.

The play ends with an epilogue in which we meet Angela, Carmen, Edwina, and Lola as happy, satisfied adults. In one of many sequences involving choral speech, we are assured that they "have found their fire," they "color the world," they "inspire creation," etc. For all its assiduously evoked agony, Phoenix Rising is all uplift, all the time. All I can say is, Oh my goddess. -- David Barbour

(30 June 2016)

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