Review: The ‘94 Club (Crave Productions)

Sexuality and identity are key themes in this play, now on stage at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre

Entry to The ‘94 Club—currently running at the Tarragon Theatre—grants you a gorgeously written and deeply empathetic play about a crew of fifteen-year-old girls exploring their sexualities. They devise a competition among themselves to this end, one that makes for a riveting survey of sex, gender, and consent as they grapple with these concepts for the first time.

Writer Thalia Gonzalez Kane finds poetry in having her characters parse the language they use to make decisions about their sex lives. They engage in musical back-and-forths on the meanings of loaded words like ‘slut’, ‘soulmate’, ‘bitch’, and ‘relationship’. Their reverence for the power of claiming the words for themselves—in the name of being proud of sleeping around like their male friends—is such that they fall just shy of finishing each other’s sentences.

Jenn (Tamara Almeida) is a spot-on example of the classic bully-with-a-heart trope. Her will is mighty in its stubbornness and frustration, keeping her authoritarian veneer from cracking even when the trauma beneath it is begging for air.

Tommi (Thalia Gonzalez Kane) brings the highest degree of emotional awareness to the crew. She is the balancing element, for the most part knowing how she feels and why she wants to act before she does. Her empowerment is informed and runs counter to any assumptions about her age’s capacity for maturity.

Mrs. Wright (Jeanie Calleja), the guidance counsellor, is an abrasive (and for that reason effective) example of conservative sexual education leading to trauma and prejudice. Her investment in reputation above the pursuit of self-knowledge leads her to shame her daughter Laura’s efforts to know herself. Her ideology depends on a fear of failure and judgement from her peers the crew struggles to define itself against.

Laura (Lily Scriven)’s high capacity for restraint makes her into her mother’s daughter. Her reluctance to move beyond second and third base with her partners, like her mother’s initial silence regarding the competition, is rooted in self-consciousness, in a need to control how she is seen instead of shamelessly being herself.

Meanwhile, Sarah (Shaina Silver-Baird) mesmerizes with how she evolves on stage, serving up comic relief at moments of peak tension. The beliefs she holds are such volatile, vulnerable things. The fireworks they give off as she discards what does not serve her identity are a treat to behold.

The set, designed by Monica Dottor, anchors an otherwise realistic play in a conceptual, fantastical space, one where the double standards in the crew’s sex vocabulary can be discussed and uprooted. It resembles a jungle gym of synaptic connections, or the strings of some futuristic instrument, each of them catching light as if transporting an electrical charge.

Dottor’s direction and choreography are consistent strengths and natural extensions of her otherworldly set. They are responsible for the play’s whimsical, fairy-like rhythm, attuned to the flow of a dream. Her use of minimalist flourishes—a twirl here, a synchronized Fruit Roll-Up unrolling there—are precisely enough to keep you from waking up.

My guest, Yanis, and I agree that Kane could have better harnessed her fondness for timeless corny turns of phrase—’always and forever’, ‘I just can’t’; ‘not in this town’—into a more critical stance on how vaguely they capture a feeling. Yet, there is some truth in the beginning of one’s romantic education having to do with moving past these platitudes toward a more realistic picture of love.

Though he was transported by how impassioned all the performances were, and by Kane’s knack for creating psychologically distinct characters, Yanis also thought the consequences of the girls’ actions merited further exploration beyond what the play delves into.

As a record of the pressures of high school, however, The ‘94 Club does them justice and then some. It brings fearless performers to the impossible task of asserting the identities of characters who’ve just begun to think about who they are. In attempting this, the crew’s competition preserves their dignity, in spite of their community wishing they had not tried.

Details

  • The ‘94 Club is playing until May 12 at the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue).
  • Shows are daily at 8:00 pm with additional performances May 9 at 1:30 pm and May 12 at 2:30 pm.
  • Tickets range from $22-$30 and can be purchased online here.

Photo provided by the company.

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