By Kathleen Campion
Five women assemble regularly in a classroom, four girls who are there to learn (another is spoken of but absent), and one woman to teach them. Ostensibly, the girls are here because they have been acting out. Substantively, they are here to be mothered and comforted, to be redeemed, as each of the girls has been brutalized in some way and for some time. Three of the four are loud and brash while the fourth all but apologizes for breathing.
Writing credible dialogue is daunting, but writing in the argot of high school girls — mean or otherwise — raises the ante. Here their exchanges come off as fresh and authentic. Author Laura Gosheff tells us in the Author’s Note that she’s interviewed hundreds of women who have endured emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. She has sifted those stories to frame Phoenix Rising, refining excruciating details from many horrors to focus on these.
Angela (Julia Peterson) is the hardest heart. She is dark and punishing and terrified. Peterson plays her with a determined swagger — she’s got nothing to lose, since she has already lost all. Carmen (Miranda Roldan) is the noisiest. She is flirtatious and silly, “dancing as fast as she can.” She knows something is terribly wrong but not what. Edwina (Nichollette Shorts) is abject and childlike. She cannot please enough. Lola (Whitney Biancur) plays the slut, full of rage, and determined to appear to be in control. When they tell you how they got this way it’s powerful.
There are four living girls here and a dead girl, Jolie (Rachel Haas) dressed as a ballerina. She represents all the girls who are abused but not redeemed. And, that’s why she’s a problem. Haas is ardent and angelic in her part, it’s just not much of a part; she’s rather a prop. Grace (Kristen Vaughan)— the goddess, teacher, earth mother — is written in one note: wise, warm, welcoming, redeeming. A little wrath from this goddess — or maybe just a change of tone — would have been welcome, but her eerie calm has a whiff of Xanax about it.
Writer/Director Goshen takes a dramatic risk with these compelling tales. She juxtaposes the gritty details of each girl’s horrendous story with the myth of the Goddess, or rather several goddesses. Grace, their teacher and spiritual guide, tells the tales of warrior queens and scrappy deities: how each found her way and vanquished the demon. They are inspiring tales of derring-do, designed to address each girl’s particular vulnerability. The device is daring. The problem is, once you do it twice — thunder clap, lighting change, open the magic book, and tell the tale — once you use the gambit twice it gets pretty tired.
I would not make light of the accomplishment here. At the end of the ninety minute production you do feel you have met deeply damaged people, genuinely scarred women, completely undone by what’s been done to them. They are awash in coping mechanisms, and while each experiences a breakthrough moment, it is clearly only the beginning of a monumental struggle ahead. Props to Gosheff for no happy endings, only progress reports.
But that’s the thing. I am not sure what Phoenix Rising is but I fear it is not yet a play. It has power and life but it has the feel of a therapist’s session gone wide. That said, as the production resolved, and the sheer weight of all the destruction — not just the rape and brutality but the lifelong humiliation and guilt girls and women who are abused carry —settled on me and brought me to tears. There’s plenty of weight in the subject here and there are dramatic risks taken and the young actors are solid. But the piece is just not yet a polished play.
Phoenix Rising – Written and directed by Laura Gosheff.
WITH: Kristen Vaughan (Goddess, Mother, Grace), Julia Peterson (Angela), Rachel Haas (Jolie), Miranda Roldan (Carmen), Nichollette Shorts (Edwina), Whitney Biancur (Lola).
Designed by Sheryl Liu; lighting by Seth Reiser; costume design Angela Harner; sound design by Julian Evans; music design by Lena Gabrielle.
Presented by Living Lotus Project in association with test400k.org and Julie Simlyansky. At the Lion Theater, 410 W 42 Street, Manhattan; Through July 16th. Running time: 1hour 30 minutes no intermission.