Mortified: smells like teen girl spirit

Studio 59, in association with Touchstone Theatre, is presenting Mortified.

Isaac Mazur and Emily Jane King are two of the excellent young performers in Amy Rutherford’s Mortified (Photo by Emily Cooper)

This might seem like an odd thing to say but, to me, Mortified feels whole and perfect in the same way that a body can feel whole and perfect: it’s just that organic, sensual—and complicated.

And, like being embodied, Mortified is more than a touch surreal. Playwright Amy Rutherford has set the action in the dreamlike space of an empty swimming pool. That’s where Woman conjures up Girl—herself from 25 years earlier—because Woman is so fucked up about a sexual relationship that Girl had with a guy named Ty, starting when she was 13 and he was 21, that, in her adult life, Woman is frozen.

I said it’s complicated, right? As the play progresses, Woman’s narrative peels away. She remembers events only in terms of sexual assault, but Girl experiences the dating, the dreams, and the romance—as well as the mortification. And, to Rutherford’s great credit, while Ty clearly does monstrous things, the script never dehumanizes him—or lets him off the hook.

All of this pours forth in a theatrical experience that is saturated with humour, eccentricity, and shame-free vulnerability: the weirdness of the details makes them feel authentic. Girl’s best friend Alisha inserts Girl’s first tampon for her, laughs at Girl’s lack of pubic hair, and then tells her it’s okay. Girl’s synchronized swimming coach enforces the idea that Girl is not a victim—while screaming at her to smile. And Girl’s father, oblivious to his daughter’s degrading sexual involvement with a sketchy adult, cheerily suggests that the family play another game of Boggle.

Like Sarah DeLappe’s The WolvesMortified captures the chaotic nature of teen-girl culture: the combination of stuffed animals and a stoned boyfriend; the eccentric friend who “uses a walker even though she’s not old.” It seems that the sexual awakening of girls—and their emergence into adulthood—may finally be getting some of the attention that it has been denied and, if that is truly the case, it’s a major cause for celebration.

Director Anita Rochon and her team capitalize theatrically on the richness of Rutherford’s text. Rochon uses the huge talent pool at Studio 58 to fill the stage with dancers at an underage nightclub, for instance—and she uses those bodies to effect a magical transition: Girl and young Ty start the scene but transform into Woman and the older version of Ty in the middle of it.

Sound designer Malcolm Dow emphasizes the dreamlike quality of the piece—by amplifying the voice of Girl’s swim coach, for example, emphasizing her role as one of the narrators of Girl’s life, and one of the spooky arbiters of social norms.

Projection designer Jordan Lloyd Watkins pours all sorts of watery imagery down the mouldy walls of Pam Johnson’s detailed and deliberately decrepit swimming-pool set. Choreographer Amber Funk Barton makes a huge contribution, offering up full synchronized-swimming routines and other movement sequences. And costumer Carmen Alatorre gives the synchro team shimmering aquatic outfits that sometimes seem to congeal out of vapour.

Under Rochon’s direction, the acting in this mostly student production is pretty much seamless. Emily Jane King, who plays Girl, creates a lodestar for the production with her honest and responsive performance. It takes humility to deliver this kind of portrait and the humility pays off. Professional actor—and Studio 58 grad—Lindsey Angell is emotionally transparent and moving as Woman. Angell is a star in my books, precisely because of this kind of work. Ian Butcher, the only other pro in the cast—and also a Studio 58 alumnus—never flinches from or comments on adult Ty’s darkness or humanity. And, impressively, Isaac Mazur achieves the same thing playing young Ty: the character is a criminal who’s doing serious damage, but he’s too much of a dickhead—too oblivious to the consequences of his actions—to notice.

I also particularly enjoyed the tragicomic fury of Girl’s disabled friend Shannon, as played by Katie Voravong and the unstable good intentions of Girl’s pal Alisha (as embodied by Kelsey Kanatan Wavey).

Do you know what else is exciting about this show? Studio 58, which is producing Mortified in association with Touchstone Theatre, took a huge leap of faith with it. This production is a premiere and Mortified is Rutherford’s first full-length script. Stylistically, this piece is as eccentric as all hell and a whole lot of things had to come together to make it work. So congratulations to Studio 58’s artistic director Kathryn Shaw for modelling the kind of artistic daring that will, hopefully, fuel her students’ careers.

MORTIFIED By Amy Rutherford. Directed by Anita Rochon. A Studio 58 production in association with Touchstone Theatre. On Saturday, November 17.  Continues until December 2.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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