Playwright: Hilary Bettis
Company: The Edge Theatre Company
Venue: The Edge Theater, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood CO
Running Time: 2 hours (includes 15 minute intermission)
Date of Performance: Sunday, August 30, 2015. Regional Premiere
If you’re a parent with preteen or teenaged girls, you’re probably familiar with American Girl. The dolls, not the play. American Girl dolls are ethnically diverse toys that represent girls in American history and today. Hilary Bettis’ American Girls morality play also presents us with contemporary teenage girls, but in a much darker way. For Bettis, the values we teach our children are not always the values they learn.
|Alexis Robbins (Katie) and Bethany Richardson (Amanda).|
Amanda (Bethany Richardson) and Katie (Alexis Robbins) are 14 years old, finishing middle school, and becoming “adults” as they move to High School. That process is accelerated by our celebrity worshipping sex saturated pop culture, which Amanda and Katie have fully embraced. The girls define happiness as money, fame, movie stardom, and a mansion. Think Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie, and Lindsay Lohan for a sense of where Amanda and Katie are headed.
It’s not an easy road for obvious reasons, but it’s one made even more difficult by Amanda and Katie’s religious convictions. Their spiritual guide, Pastor Jim (Joe Von Bokern), creates a classic “good versus evil” context for the teenaged true believers. That’s not a bad context for kids, as they need structure to figure out how the world works. The downside, however, is that Pastor Jim’s “black or white” decision tree oversimplifies problems and foregoes all nuances.
|Joe Von Bokern (Pastor Jim).|
Act 1 of American Girls sets the stage carefully; Amanda and Katie try to pursue fame through celebrity. They naively enter a dance contest, meet a “Hollywood Producer,” and wind up on his casting couch. What happens next is a classic good (if we get famous, we can “spread God’s word”) versus evil (seduction and statutory rape) dilemma. Conflicted, the American girls choose both fame and salvation, with no apparent clue that they are mutually exclusive. Act 2 brings predictably dire consequences for Amanda and Katie.
American Girls tries to do a lot, mixing religion, fame, and sex into a contemporary coming of age tale. Bettis’ script succeeds on nearly every point, drawing us into the teenage world of selfies, endless banal videos, and well rationalized but poor decisions. Bettis knows what goes on with girls as they grow up, and she delivers it in line after line.
The script is creatively structured. Two characters (Frank, played by Benjamin Cowhick, and Dr. Opal Banks, played by Paige Larson) appear only late in the show, and then only in video clips. There are shows for which the video portions are distractions; here they are inextricably related to the telling of the story.
Set Designer Justin Lane and Video/Sound Designer El Armstrong have created a environment where technology plays a role nearly as vital as the ones the actors play. Lane’s gorgeous set includes 3 sizes of video monitors (9 in all), permitting every seat in the house an excellent view of the video clips. He gives the actors a HOLLYWOOD sign in the background, along with a platform, lit from below, that includes “Walk of Fame” stars for Katherine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. It is perhaps no coincidence that the two female stars on The Edge’s Walk of Fame were the biggest celebrities of their times.
Armstrong’s videos are tightly shot and cleverly advance the story line. His remote segment with Dr. Opal Banks has the feel of a live interview, thanks to the well timed video editing. (As an aside, Bettis here is channeling Oprah, and the name “Banks” is perhaps a reference to the wealth and fame the American Girls seek.) You may be inclined to get out of your seat and leave the theater after the curtain call is over and the lights come up. Don’t go. Armstrong is not yet finished with you. His video coup de grace comes, fittingly, when you least expect it.
Bethany Richardson stays completely focused as Amanda. We never doubt her commitment to fame, however unrealistic that goal may become. Richardson maintains her “little girl” persona throughout, refusing to grow up despite her desperate situation. It is through Richardson as Amanda that the playwright drives home the innocence and vulnerability of our own children.
Alexis Robbins has a much more nuanced role as Katie. Robbins takes her character from a hapless child with low self esteem to a mature young adult, capable of taking responsibility for her mistakes. Robbins grows up before our eyes, trading her “good versus evil” world for one where pragmatism and compromise are better suited for an adult reality.
|Bethany Richardson (Amanda) and Alexis Robbins (Amanda) dance audition.|
Director Angela Astle carefully coaches Robbins and Richardson through the tumult and catastrophes that rock Amanda and Katie’s world. Astle keeps them vulnerable but believable, even in the most compromising situations. It’s a fine line; some directors might sacrifice some vulnerability for additional credibility. Astle doesn’t sacrifice anything here. She puts the theatrical equivalent of 14 year old girls in impossibly adult situations, and does it with all the credibility and vulnerability necessary to make it work.
You may notice that Bettis’ characters seem to lack meaningful parenting. Where, you might ask, are they? The answer, sadly, is that they are invisible, with one notable exception: Amanda’s father discovers his daughter’s “screen test” on the internet. Katie repeatedly demands to know how he found it; Amanda doesn’t know. We are left to wonder as well. Does Amanda’s father have a porn addiction? Was he looking for young girls on the internet when he stumbled upon his daughter?
American Girls is not about the dolls. It’s about the very real danger faced by the young, the innocent, and the most vulnerable among us. That danger has always been around, but in the last decade or so it, it has become much more pervasive. Bettis puts our kids on display as they try to navigate a value system they barely understand and dangers they have never imagined. That’s a scary premise for a script, and Bettis lets it play out before us in all its perverted creepy ugliness.
As adults, we have internalized our value systems. We forget what a painful learning process it is to develop the values that will guide our lives. Some lessons are very hard on kids, and the consequences can be permanent. In a perfect world, American Girls would be required viewing for all parents of middle school kids. They might take the time to talk to their kids and to monitor their technology. And that might prevent a few kids from bumbling through some important lessons that may haunt them for the rest of their lives .
See American Girls with an open mind, and remember, it’s not about toys or dolls. It’s about real kids living in a dangerous world we have all created. It will give you pause. It will shake you up. It will force you to acknowledge how hard it is to be a girl growing up today.
And it just might make you a better parent.
There is ample free parking at the theater, and on surrounding streets.
There are adult themes, adult language, and brief nudity in American Girl. Discretion is advised for children under 15. Additionally, anyone who has been a child victim of sexual abuse may find American Girls particularly disturbing.
This show closes on September 27, 2015.
PRE/POST SHOW DINING RECOMMENDATION:
We didn’t have time to stop for dinner before the show. However, I still recommend Max’s Mexican Restaurant at 6999 W. Colfax for tasty, unpretentious Mexican food near The Edge Theater. It’s a 2 minute walk to/from The Edge. The staff is friendly, the vibe is local, and the food good and very reasonably priced.
Producer: Rick Yaconis
Production Coordinator: Lara Maerz
Director: Angela Astle
Assistant Director/Dramaturg: Amanda Flageolle
Sound and Video Design: El Armstrong
Lighting Design: Kevin Taylor
Set Design: Justin Lane
Master Carpenter Emeritus: Rich Munoz
Costume Design: Erin Leonard
Stage Manager: Amelia Retureta
Amanda: Bethany Richardson
Katie: Alexis Robbins
Pastor Jim: Joe Von Bokern
Frank Miller: Benjamin Cowhick
Dr. Opal Banks: Paige Larson
DJ/Mr. Branbault: Ryan Goold