In the back of one of my little notebooks where I jot down random little ideas that hit me during various points in the day, I have an entry marked “Fringe Bingo.” Once upon a time I was thinking of writing a show that would parody the various tropes of Fringe plays of all shapes and sizes: what would happen if you arranged all the tropes into little Bingo squares, and went to each show seeing how many of them turn up at once? What would a “Fringe Bingo”-winning show look like?
The answer is Girl Versus Corinth. How best to surmise? “Disgraced and displaced Queen of Corinth Medea (Sarah Anne Sillers) returns from Hades to give her side of the infamous, murder-filled story of her exile, in rock concert fashion. Also, she is backed up by three of the Furies, manifesting as feminist icons: Mary Wollstonecraft (Catherine Purcell), Betty Friedan (Sherry Berg), and Rebecca Walker (Tatiana Wechsler). Also, also, despite near-infinite resources to create the show, she relies on her stage manager (Stephen Russell Murray) to play all the male roles in her telling. Also also also, we are told lots of things about feminism through the ages.”
Let’s run through the card really quick: “Deconstructed Classical Theatre.” Check. “Band Set with a Plot.” Check. “Lots of Swearing.” “Meta-theatre.” “Historical Figures: Revealed!” “Drag.” “Fancy Technology Integration.” “Puppets!” “Social Message Yelled At Audience, Rather than Revealed.” Check check check. Simply put, Girl Versus Corinth is the Fringe-iest Fringe show that ever Fringed.
Of course, reveling in Fringe tropes doesn’t necessarily mean something isn’t of quality. So is Girl Versus Corinth any good?
I’ve got to hand it to director Catie Davis, this is one insanely well-produced event. Top to bottom, the ambitious script by Danny Baird has been rendered handsomely. Design-wise, it’s a marvel. Lighting designer Katy Atwell builds and cues an honest-to-gods rock show in Ward Hall. Mark Costello produces eye-catching video content to accompany the concert action, and integrates live video (handled professionally by on-set videographer Tess Owen) with aplomb. Doug Gillette mixes the rock belting and electronic score elegantly, with nothing hitting the audience’s ears as too loud or unpleasant. Courtesy AC Gottlieb, all the rocking grrrls are outfitted in fine rock and roll variations on their historical identities. I don’t know which designer to credit for the puppets, but they look nice, too. The harmonics and phrasing of the women sounds gorgeous, so due credit to music director Emily Goggin, as well.
Davis, along with choreographer Jelani Alladin, stage the entire event beautifully. Alladin infuses each rock number with simple, sharp dance moves that line up well with the song styles, and are awesomely highlighted by Atwell’s bumping and pulsing cues.
Girl Versus Corinth
by Danny Baird
Directed by Catie Sanderson Davis
Composer: Danny Baird
Choreographer: Jelani Aladin
Details and tickets
The actors all do great work with what they have. Sillers’ Medea commands the event and belts furiously as the rock goddess impresario. Berg is a singular comic talent who can summon laughs wherever she wants them, and also gets to shine when Betty Friedan starts getting real about “The Feminine Mystique.” Purcell finely combines the Victorian poise of Wollstonecraft with a more fiery, contemporary rock angst. Wechsler, as designated modern feminist voice Rebecca Walker, grounds the commentary in the world and stakes in which we currently live. And Murray brings doses of much needed levity to the production, though gets one great moment to shine when possessed with the enraged spirit of King of the gods Zeus, who is summoned and briefly gets the upper hand on our heroines, until…
…until what exactly, I have no idea. It looks like we have some conflict in the play for a second, and then suddenly Medea is back in control and everything starts trucking back along. Such is the case with several moments in Girl Versus Corinth, where things happen and we’re not entirely sure what they mean. Why was Zeus invited to the party, and how was he defeated? Was Betty Friedan’s impassioned rant the subtext which she actually wrote and preached, or a breakthrough, wake-up moment? If Rebecca Walker feels like the aggression of second wave feminists led to the defensive state of the current debate, why is she evoking that same aggression? These are all finely played moments in the show, but devoid of context, they ultimately ring hollow and confusing.
Which ultimately brings us back to Medea. What is her side of the story, exactly? Girl Versus Corinth is pretty clearly “Woman vs. the Patriarchy”, but I still don’t have any insight into Medea’s potential motivations that I couldn’t have gotten from my battle-worn copy of the Euripides play. In fact, I would argue that Medea’s an ultimately more sympathetic, understood figure in her “authorized by the patriarchy” villainous depiction.
What Girl Versus Corinth ultimately seems to lack is a clear arc towards something. We’re teased that we’re going to get her take on the murders of the Princess and her sons (almost ironically glossing over the most outright patriarchal victim of hers, King Creon himself). When the story finally arrives, though, it doesn’t feel like we learn anything new, and Medea herself doesn’t appear changed by the events of the preceding hour, and her closest things to moments of catharsis happen on video screens, in the narrative past. We’re already acting out past events elsewhere, so why not let Sillers play some of these great moments in the room?
We learn about these other feminists along the way, other brave women standing up against society…sort of. But why these women? I don’t think they were all vilified as Medea was, were they? Are they the “children” of Medea’s movement, her “real” children after she killed her sons? Do they connect back to Medea at all? We don’t get much of that tissue. We especially don’t learn much about Walker, easily the most under-served subject of the piece, as most of her number is spent listing various “I’m not a feminist, BUT…” quotes from modern female celebrities, with very little of her own perspective shared for the audience. She decries “post-feminism,” sure, and trumps herself the “third wave”. But I’ll be honest, if you don’t explain to me what these terms mean in the context of the play, the real world isn’t gonna help much, since the conversation around feminism in the modern day is so terminologically muddy and malleable. (Actually, now that I think about terminology…was Walker’s number shaming these modern women for shirking from “feminism”, or shaming the “second wave” for making the term so poisonous that several obviously-feminist-ish strong personalities fear it so?)
Girl Versus Corinth is wildly ambitious and beautifully produced, and I genuinely hope for a future for this bold piece. Before it moves into the future, though, it needs to figure out what the story being told in that room is. Who are the characters as three-dimensional women, and who are they to each other? The play raised some great questions in my mind, but playwright Danny Baird needs to decide if raising questions and presenting contradictions is the point, or if it is moving to a point of view/conclusion of its own.
I should be asking questions about the world, not what just happened on stage…unless questioning the action of the play is very clearly the point. Is every piece of technology essential to illuminating this story? Do puppets and “drag queen on the street” segments contribute? Does the show-within-a-show structure? There’s a fine line between “layering” and “cluttering.” I have no doubt that Baird has an answer to all these questions, but clarity, especially with high-concept theatre, is crucial.
At the end of the day, though, I would recommend checking it out if adding the ticket to your pass doesn’t break the bank for you. It’s got a ways to go, but this is why we Fringe, and underneath all of the production, Girl Versus Corinth is the quintessentially Fringiest of Fringe shows – a new work, a bold idea, and at the very beginning of a long path to becoming something special.