Ally Theatre Company’s production of The Head That Wears The Crown takes on intense subject matter, folding together high school relationships, sexual assault, eating disorders, and self-harm in an emotionally confusing mix of lovely teenage girl camaraderie and long-lasting psychological scars. This workshop production reflects that overall unease; some moments are beautifully rendered, but others leave you unsettled and questioning.
The play opens with Anisa telling us about herself and her high school besties, Caro and Bethanie. The three of them are pretty and popular, and they are well-versed in the work necessary to maintain their status in school. They must be hot, they must be fun, and they must manage sexualized behavior from boys regardless of how it makes them feel. When a new girl, Danielle, arrives at their school, they quickly fold her into their group. It is all sweet makeovers and cute hang outs until Bethanie gets dumped by her boyfriend. It turns out he is interested in Danielle, and Danielle secretly reciprocates his interest. When the girls find out, they craft a punishment for Danielle’s disloyalty on the night of the winter formal that spirals horribly out of control. The aftermath of that night carries over into all four girl’s post-high school lives for years afterward.
The Head That Wears the Crown (workshop)
closes March 16, 2019
Details and tickets
The first act sets a very high bar for the play. The cast’s performances are immediately engaging and more subtle and nuanced than we usually get from dramas set in a high school. I was impressed with the chemistry between the four main friends. They struck a beautiful balance between showing why these girls love each other and how that love could curdle with immaturity. This is probably the most dazzling feat of the show: Anisa, Caro, and Bethanie are not scenery-chewing mean girls. You like these characters. You even love them a little more than maybe you should. The small side conversations and interactions between the characters are natural and warm, and it is a delight to watch these girls together. There is also a dynamic responsiveness between the script, the staging, and the technical aspects in the first act. The scene transitions enhanced the flow of the production, even with a few minor technical hiccups, and the use of projections and well-placed sound effects served to effectively flesh out the spare black box environment.
When the plot reaches its critical turning point on the fateful night at the end of act one, so too does the production. In the first act, the action takes place over the course of a semester, while in the second act, time dilates at a disorienting pace and speeds over multiple years. How much time passes isn’t entirely clear; there is a lot of life crammed in as we watch the friends go to college, get jobs, and start families. In the first act, we saw events mainly from Anisa’s perspective, but by the second act we are getting the primary events narrated from both Anisa and Danielle’s perspectives. The staging in the second act also becomes more haphazard, with too many costume adjustments and more abrupt scene changes. These structural differences between the acts interrupt the delicate balance established by the first act and left me feeling like I was watching two separate shows. One was clear and well-designed, the other was murkier and uncertain.
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What complicated things for me, however, is that while the unevenness hurt the flow of the show, the differences between the two acts mirror the changes that the characters go through themselves. Things begin with these girls believing they understand how things work and where they fit into their high school world. Adulthood complicates their lives in confusing ways, particularly for Anisa, Caro, and Bethanie, and time always seems to be slipping away from them and out of their control.
The Head That Wears The Crown brought up a lot of powerful feelings in me about very challenging topics. Teasing out my feelings about how sexual assault and self-harm were handled in the play artistically from the discomfort of thinking about such painful subject matter has complicated my view of the production. As I think over the performance, I find myself going back and forth about how I feel about the show overall. Since the script is not yet finalized, there are still interesting possibilities for where the show could go. While I’m uncertain about what the final version will be, the production as it is now still holds a lot of potential. I recommend checking it out in its current form, because I do think the play’s evolution is something you won’t want to miss.
The Head That Wears The Crown by Hope Villanueva. Directed by Megan Behm. Featuring: Marley Kabin (Anisa), Danielle Scott (Danielle), Lori Pitts (Caro), Julieta Gozalo (Bethanie), Jonathan Miot (The Guys). Set Designer: Alex Davis. Costume Designer: Noni Ford. Lighting Designer: Precious Porter. Stage Manager: Charles Lasky. Production Manager: Alex Davis. Produced by Ty Hallmark. Reviewed by Kate Gorman.