I think it was when the actor appeared on stage with a fistful of cow balloons in hand that I was reminded that it had, indeed, been a long, safe summer without the outrage of a Yale Repertory Theatre offering to fill the void. The theatre has just opened its new season with a world premiere play called “Girls” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and, suffice it to say, Yale is back to doing what it does. Big time.
Directed in a frenzy of non-stop motion by Lileana Blain-Cruz (the talented choreographer Raja Feather Kelly was also kept very busy here), “Girls” is a contemporary take on Euripides “The Bacchae”, but don’t bother digging up the Greek classic to try and figure out what Jacobs-Jenkins has in mind for her play. Set in “a dense thicket of woods in a public park outside of a town just like this”, Adam Rigg’s jaw-dropping scenic design completely envelopes the large company of actors (mostly women) boogying throughout the trees and shrubbery. An “influencer”, Deon (a sly Nicholas L. Ashe), enters the scene to set up his sound equipment while informing us he is there to revenge the death of his mother. The circumstances surrounding that death are spun out throughout the evening from the various voices of the dozen or so women who have no problem talking. The “talking” is a series of occasionally brilliant, sometimes tedious, often baffling and frequently hilarious and/or tiresome monologues that speak to some kind of (I think!) allegory about womanhood, revenge and contemporary girl power.
The play is a bit of a mess even before that cowherd (not “coward”, which is one of the play’s endlessly silly running gags) enters the scene. But the acting is never in doubt at Yale as a diverse group of woman tell their stories and advance what there is of the chaotic plot. All is overseen by Deon who, in Ashe’s mesmerizing performance, may remind you of the Emcee in “Cabaret”. The women definitely dominate here, but the few men onstage are also fairly memorable. In addition to Ashe, they include Will Seefried as an insecure white nationalist, Tom Nelis as an aging hippie/father figure and Haynes Thigpen in several colorful roles including that guy with the cows.
It’s interesting to point out that Yale’s new season includes three more plays you’ve probably never heard of and one classic you have: “A Raisin in the Sun”. I’m already wondering how they’ll work in a fog machine or balloon animals into that revival.
“Girls” continues at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through October 26. For ticket reservations or further information call: 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor and resident critic of WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.