Review: Girls Like That (Tarragon Theatre)

A story about the pressure of growing into womanhood, on stage at the Tarragon in Toronto

In Girls Like That, onstage now at Tarragon, a group of girls in a small private grade school develop that dreadful, inevitable pecking order of insular communities. When they go to high school, their social dynamics are further complicated by sexuality, boys, and patriarchal contradictions about how they are supposed to engage with their sexuality, and with boys.

The Saint Helen’s school girls have been with each other — and only each other — up until secondary. In one scene they are young children, lying with their heads on each other’s stomachs and laughing with a joyful intimacy. But the popularity index started from Day One of kindergarten and it only grows along with their physical selves. In another scene, they steal glances at each other while changing into swimsuits at a pool, each trying to keep her own body covered — and we find out that one girl, Scarlett, was only there because their mothers had insisted.

In the present day, the girls are on their phones constantly, as many of us are. They are now in a larger, mixed gender high school, but they are still a tight clique after so many years together. Scarlett is still the one who is most often left out, and is confirmed as a pariah when a naked picture of her circulates around social media.

This is an ensemble show featuring Tess Benger, Nadine Bhabha, Shakura Dickson, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Lucy Hill & Rachel VanDuzer. They are full of dance skill, displayed right away with an energizing opening number to Beyoncé’s Run the World (Girls). After that, the dancing serves as transition between the scenes from grade school and high school to seemingly discrete monologues from other women in periods of history. The only apparent connection, until a reveal the end, is that they all have a story to tell about experiencing misogyny.

The dancing and choreography are worthy of a music video on heavy rotation at Much Music, were such a channel still in existence. All the numbers garnered deserved applause from the audience, and I’m sure they, and the intrigue of the monologues, were a key part in keeping our attention for an hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission.

Coming from a small town, I empathized both with the idea that your social station is solidified before you’re old enough to dress yourself, and that in high school, a reputation is the worst thing you can get, much worse than failing grades. I understand all too well how girls who were your friends one day are your enemies the next, and how deeply that can hurt. But girls aren’t the only players; this show was missing any accountability on the part of the boys.

When the actors portrayed boys it was in broad caricatures, and the worst thing any of them actually do is pressure each other to look at the photo, and put porn on at a party. The historical monologues are different, more authentic in a way, in that they depict men as people who are culpable for one thing or another. It felt very disconnected from the rest of the show where boys played no real role (even though someone must have shared that photo initially.) It felt very disconnected from my experience of high school, and of life.

The monologues also depicted women who had unique personalities. When playing the Saint Helen’s girls, the ensemble acted as one (excepting, sometimes, Scarlett.) While I felt the performers were skilled in their timing and physicality, there was no chance to see if they could embody an individual character. They were a manifestation groupthink, and their thinking never grew any further than petty self-interest and slut-shaming. And as cruel as teen girls can be to each other, I remember us having deeper inner lives than that.

Despite this criticism, Girls Like That is a contribution into the cultural conversation we are having right now about gender based oppression, and it does that while being fun and flashy — much like Beyoncé herself (albeit without her racial analysis.) I think this show might be appealing to a teen or preteen, and allow an important conversation to grow when you talk about it with them afterward.

Details

  •  Girls Like That at Tarragon, 30 Bridgman Ave, is on until May 27, 2018
  • Showtimes are Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 pm, with matinees on Sunday at 2:30 pm and Wednesdays at 1:30 pm
  • Tickets range from $22–$60
  • Purchase tickets online or at 416-531-1827

Photo of Tess Benger, Nadine Bhabha, Shakura Dickson, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Lucy Hill & Rachel VanDuzer by Cylla von Tiedemann