Review By Chloe Perrett
What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne is set at St. Mary’s House, a Catholic reformatory school for boys and girls in New York’s Lower East Side, 1913. It’s very obvious and within the first five minutes of entering the Brunswick Mechanics black box space, Hunt has managed to take us back to an early Catholic school dormitory and immediately I couldn’t help but feel triggered by my own Catholic school upbringing. It’s as though she has cast a spell on the audience once you step over the threshold of the door; it smells of old textbooks, a traditional thurible burning incense in which it is attempting to cover the the rich essence of feminine innocence and the pulsing beat of hormonal young women.
The four young actresses portraying Catholic reform-school girls enamored by Sanger’s radical views on sex education and racism had to compete with cover songs by the Doors, but the actresses seemed unfazed by the sounds from outside as they opened the play with a raucous and provocative group masturbation scene made hilarious by the girls’ commentary about how they are supposed to feel during the act. Sanger’s influence on this group of 1914 teenagers is cemented in that first scene, but becomes even more evident as the play moves forward and the girls reveal their multidimensional and complicated characters.
Theresa (Rachel Kamath), Anne (Shirong Wul) and Lucy (Vivien Nguyen) are dealing with the death of a former roommate who, it is later revealed, died from blood loss due to a badly botched abortion. When they are joined by a new roommate, hostile and rebellious Joan (Ravenna Bouckaert), they react with further hostility. Within days, they see that Joan is one of them; and she wins them over, ultimately teaching them that Sanger’s radically new philosophies might give them the freedom they long for during their rigidly controlled days and imagination-filled nights.
Under the brilliant direction of Hunt, the four young actresses create completely round and believable characters, bringing the four turn-of-the-century teenagers fully to life and relating to the other characters as only adolescent girls do. Theresa, the dreamer, is the constant optimist, believing that she will travel and marry the perfect man (Sigmund Freud alike which is mildly concerning), raising the perfect children and still maintaining a life of her own. Kamath plays her with a wistful sweetness and innocent sexual energy. Anne, the sarcastic bad-ass, has little patience with the other girls; but it becomes clear that the hard exterior is her own protection against the pain she has experienced before this play. Nguyen plays Lucy who is scatterbrained and trying to become used to her blossoming body, yet unable to understand the changes occurring in it and finding euphoria in the beauty of self pleasure.
And Joan, the newest roommate, is the most complicated of the four. She appears far older than adolescence, yet her admiration for Sanger is very obvious and the audience screams for her to keep swimming upstream as a strong and well spoken woman much like Sanger and Joan of Arc. The four actresses play off well against each other especially with Jessica Keeffe’s carefully considered sound design as it overlaps with the dialogue and offers seamless scene transitions, complemented by Danni Ray’s choreography. Again, I feel as though I’m back in school and witnessing a weekly assembly liturgical dance followed by confession although I was never lucky enough to score an orange from the Priest.
I couldn’t help but question the symbolism of the recurring bright orange and tinged green fruit throughout the show that offered a glimpse of colour, sweetness and citrus sting to what could be long and stable scenes. I was left with a quenching thirst for orange juice and hoping for a happy ending for all four young women.
The girls come to an understanding of their own sexuality and humanity by adopting Sanger as their patron saint and secretly praying to her, even as they march off each day to religion classes based in Catholicism. The play mentions the leading men in all four girls' lives and the bleak and at times romanticised relationships they have with each of the men. We never see the local Priest, however he is often mentioned and it leaves a sour taste in the air every time the young women return from confession holding yet another orange.
What Every Girl Should Know in many ways screams the conception of feminism and explores how these four young women change their beliefs and views of the world, learning about birth control and how they can protect themselves against unplanned pregnancies. Sanger is the real saint; encouraging women to take control of their own lives and how new freedom will be forever a battle for women, however we must not give in.
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