You Fancy Yourself: A Step in the Right Direction
Maja Ardal as Elsa. Image courtesy of A Contrary Company.
If there is one place that is universal in making us feel like we’re part of a social hierarchy it’s the school yard. Elementary school is the first place we go as kids without our parents and really interact with other children on our own marginally supervised turf. You Fancy Yourself, written and performed by Maja Ardal and directed by Mary Francis Moore at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre this month, explores the inner workings of playground mentality at a school in Edinburgh through the eyes of an Icelandic foreigner in the mid-1950s. Although there are moments throughout the piece that could benefit from being developed a little further, overall, I find this play to be effective in its depiction of the social and economic class systems in Scotland and also its overall message of rebelling against conformity and coming into your own by accepting your individuality to be extremely relatable.
The stage, designed by Julia Tribe, is almost completely bare except for a large trunk highlighted directly centre stage, while the rest of the space is lit only by a rich blue wash. Ardal takes her audience on a journey as Elsa, the five year old girl from Iceland who moves to Scotland and finds life very different. Quite unlike the beautiful rolling Highlands, Edinburgh is a city packed with people, dirty with soot and filth, and stricken by economic turmoil. Elsa is immediately confronted with the extreme poverty that was prevalent in the city at this time when she meets the little girl from upstairs, Adele Munroe, who instantly evokes Elsa’s pity because the girl doesn’t have a father and her flat smells like “piss”. Heavily influenced by fairy tales and mythologies, Elsa vows to take care of her “little matchstick girl” and turn her into a real life Cinderella.
Once school begins, however, and the authority of their teacher, Mrs. Campbell, is instilled over a class of children from all different social strata, Elsa finds herself struggling to fit in with the rest of the Scottish pupils and desperate for acceptance from the xenophobic Campbell, a clear reflection of British society at the time. Moreover, being from a middle class family, her friendship with the lower class Adele Munroe is questioned when Elsa suddenly becomes part of the “horse club”, a group made up of other middle class girls and spear headed by ‘mean girls’ Jane MacCready and her snarky sidekick. These two girls become Elsa’s biggest obstacles and they continually denounce her for not knowing her place within the hierarchy of the school yard and for being too self-important. In the end, Elsa realizes that loyalty is what really counts in this world and that acceptance does not come from social climbing; it comes from “fancying” yourself first.
The script and the acting are easily this show’s strongest attributes. The text is well written and clear in its trajectory. Though it is sometimes difficult to stage plays in Ottawa that have to do with characters within regimented class systems and also for an audience member in a society of immigrants to try to relate to them, You Fancy Yourself is able to effectively deliver the feeling of being a foreigner in a new country who’s faced with the strangeness of a blatant hierarchy through the familiar environment of the school. This is what gives the piece an element of universality and opens it up to a wide range of audiences and age groups. The infusion of Celtic and Icelandic mythologies are also well integrated into the story, allowing Elsa to give in to her flights of fancy and show the audience her beautiful creative soul. I also appreciate that the text leaves a few questions unanswered in regards to little Adele Munroe (who exactly was her father and why can’t her mother get out of bed?) because I feel that it embodies Elsa’s innate view that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it just matters who you are on the inside.
Ardal is a fantastic performer and, with the added direction of Francis Moore, she delivers a solid performance. Though the piece starts off a little slow, Ardal easily picks up the pace through her myriad of characters with each one completely distinct from the next. I have to say that solo actors in this community should take notes on this performer because her character transitions are superb. There seems to be a habit in a lot of amateur solo shows that I’ve seen in this community where in order to highlight a character change the actor will take a step in a various direction and then only after re-planting themselves become the new character, making these switches feel very harsh. What Ardal does brilliantly is that she literally steps into character, meaning that this physical step she takes to denote a new character is part of said character. Each step, or transition, is individual to the character and makes them more three dimensional without even having to say anything. Because of this her transitions between characters are smooth and fluid and I never once was confused as to who was who.
Before I conclude this review, I feel the need to share with you what I felt to be the strongest moment of the entire show: Elsa is alone in a cornfield waiting for a boy named Michael Bailey, who Elsa has become quite smitten with. While waiting for Michael to arrive, she takes the audience through her fantasy of the “date” that’s about to transpire. We laugh as she romanticizes her dream in front of us that ends with the classic image of the boy taking Elsa in his arms while leaning in for that passionate kiss when… it starts to rain and snaps her out of her reverie. As it slowly dawns on her that Michael isn’t coming, the lights on the stage change from the rich blue into a faded sort of light blue, very reminiscent of a rainy day, and Elsa accepts that it was all a lie. This was my favourite scene because it had everything going for it: good exposition, humour, poignancy, and the lights, again thanks to Tribe, embodying all of this. This scene was, to me, very indicative of the entire show as it represented Elsa’s constant introduction to the harsh realities of life.
Finally, to conclude, I think this is one of the stronger solo shows I’ve seen at the GCTC and I think it’s going to make a lot of audiences happy. Alright, I’ll ‘fess up…this show had me at its Elvis Presley infused pre-show. Its energy is infectious!
You Fancy Yourself
A Contrary Company Production
Written and perfomed by Maja Ardal
Directed by Mary Francis Moore
Production design by Julia Tribe
Stage management by Chantal Hayman
Technical director and sound operator: Jon Carter
Assistant technical director and lighting operator: Darryl Bennett
Head of props and scenic painter: Stephanie Dahmer
Head of wardrobe: Genevieve Ethier
Oct. 15- Nov 3, 2013 at the Iriving Greenberg Theatre Centre