Cart Before the Horse Theatre Company’s girls!girls!girls! has strong acting and design components going for it, but the production is bogged down by a script that tries too hard to make a statement about juvenile delinquency.

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In a nameless small Ontario town on a typical Friday night, local teens take over in a no-holds-barred sloshfest, completely free of adult supervision (I don’t remember high school being like that, but maybe I wasn’t cool enough). Not everyone is happy though: Splitz, a would-be gymnast, is fuming over her fumble at the province-wide OFSAA finals, and her must-win attitude haunts her with the vision of the red first-place ribbon (aren’t first-place ribbons usually blue?). So great is Splitz’s discontent that she conscripts her burnout friends Puss and Jam to track down Missy, the girl who took home the ribbon, and bring her to the woods. Also present is Bucky, the girls’ gay friend who likewise sets out to track down Missy but instead spends the night wandering from group to group of cruel classmates who beat up and humiliate him. Eventually Bucky makes it back to the woods, and things don’t go well for anyone.

The text fails to answer basic questions about plot and character: we have no idea where these teens live, we don’t know when this takes place (Missy drunkenly passes out and then wakes up later, apparently sober, but is it still Friday night?), and we are told almost nothing about these characters. Puss and Jam are the least developed despite having the most time on stage: both dress like stereotypical “troubled teens” but beyond vague assertions of how hard their home lives are, their nihilistic outlook is never justified. It’s implied that Jam might secretly be in love with Puss, but this isn’t explored enough to have any meaningful impact.

Splitz is addicted to winning, but where does this come from? Are her parents really demanding? Does she have self-esteem issues? We never find out; her drive to win is seemingly her only character trait. The inclusion of Bucky is likewise puzzling: he appears with a full set of archery equipment at first and after each respective beating his collection diminishes, but what does this add? His athletic pursuits aren’t offered as a foil to Splitz’s unhealthy determination to win, and it makes no sense for him to run all over town from party to party with bow, arrow, and quiver.

I personally find it troubling that playwright Greg MacArthur made the only male character a gay punching bag who goes straight from victim of appalling violence to perpetrator of appalling violence with only a nervous breakdown monologue between these highly crazed stages. There’s more weakness that could be discussed – the unusual frequency of monologues, the weird made-up slang (who calls a penis a “piggly-wiggly”?), the way the characters keep referring to themselves in the third person – but the production of this lacklustre text is actually fairly engaging, and that certainly deserves some mention.

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Picturd L-R: Megan Carty and Mariah Horner: Rehearsal Photo courtesy of Megan Carty

Despite the characters being poorly-written stereotypes, the acting is strong in this show, particularly Gabrielle Lazarovitz, Maryse Fernandes, and Mariah Horner as Puss, Jam, and Missy, respectively. Lazarovitz and Fernandes have a great dynamic as co-burnouts that I’m sure would be just as delightful to watch in a play with different subject matter (these two in a buddy cop comedy would be unstoppable, just saying). Even though we know practically nothing about Puss and Jam, Lazarovitz and Fernandes make them enjoyable to watch mostly through their mastery of physicality: both of them nail the swagger of high school kids who think they know everything. Horner, on the other hand, believably conveys the naivety of a drunk 14 year-old girl, and even manages to make Missy’s desperate appeals to ‘mommy and daddy’ at the hands of her captors the right amount of pathetic rather than absurdly comical.

The design for this show also shines – not just Seth Gerry’s excellent lighting design, but Martin Dawagne’s sound design with its throbbing bass, remixed pop songs, and interaction with the on-stage dialogue makes this show a rewarding audio experience. The set, with its thrust set-up around a multi-leveled configuration of scaffolding, offers many possibilities for dynamic staging. Lazarovitz and Horner’s co-directing from the stage means that the blocking is often still frontal, but the various levels do treat us to all the ways that a teen can lounge about their environment while expending so much effort into looking like they aren’t trying to look cool.

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Pictured L-R: Gabbie Lazarovitz and Mariah Horner; Rehearsal Photo courtesy of Megan Carty

I’m not sure that the strength of the production outweighs the problems in the text, but that would only be because the script, as a response to the Columbine massacre and the death of Reena Virk, tries way too hard to make a statement about how disaffected youth turn to crime to entertain themselves. Had any of the characters been explored in depth (no one seems to be the main character) then perhaps the motivations behind such horrific actions could be explored in a more nuance manner, but as it is the depiction of juvenile crime seems to be shocking for the sake of being shocking. Cart Before the Horse still comes out on top for the practical and design elements of its production, but as a drama girls!girls!girls! doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Playing at Arts Court Theatre April 27-May 6.

girls!girls!girls!

a Cart Before the Horse Theatre Company production, in association with TACTICS

Written by Greg MacArthur

Directed by Gabrielle Lazarovitz and Mariah Horner

Stage Management by Caterina Fiorindi

Costume Design by Vanessa Imeson

Lighting Design by Seth Gerry

Sound Design by Martin Dawagne

Props by Even Gilchrist

Fight Choreography by Charles Douglas

Starring, in alphabetical order: Megan Carty, Sam Dietrich, Maryse Fernandes, Mariah Horner, Gabrielle Lazarovitz

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