A lesbian roller girl from the Planet Zlagdor? No, this is not an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. This is the Women’s Theatre Festival’s production of Space Girl, which concludes its two-week run on July 6-9 at the new Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio in The Royal Bakery Building at 3801 Hillsborough St in Raleigh, NC.
In Space Girl, Triangle theatergoers will join extraterrestrial teenage lesbian Arugula Suarez as she navigates the perilous social asteroid field that is the American public high school. Her dad Nancy, the salad-scarfing anthropologist, offers fatherly advice as he collects data on human behavior.
The 90-minute one-act play by Mora V. Harris enjoyed a public reading during the 24-hour Occupy the Stage event at the 2016 Women’s Theatre Festival. The satirical science-fiction comedy opens the 2017 lineup with a full production — its North Carolina premiere.
Harris, who graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University only last year, has good reason for choosing North Carolina as a launch site. She is a graduate of Durham School of the Arts, and her earlier plays have been presented by Bare Theatre, the Cary Playwrights’ Forum, the Greensboro Fringe Festival, and The ArtsCenter of Carrboro’s 10 by 10 in the Triangle short-play festival.
Space Girl is undoubtedly feminist. Eight out of nine characters are female. The protagonist is a woman of color whose strengths and weaknesses are those of any human (or alien). Her womanhood is part of her strength, not part of her weakness. The male lead confidently adopts both “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics without ridicule. In fact, no one has taught him how he is “supposed” to behave.
This play is undoubtedly punk. Fast-paced with short scenes, rough edges, stripped-down design, and anti-establishment messaging. This play is also undoubtedly queer. The protagonist is a lesbian of color with an active, realistic love life. She does not die of a drug overdose, an assault, or AIDS complications.
Some characters feel like freaks, have their identities misunderstood, and have to play along to hide their true selves. No one is aghast when an adult male introduces himself as Nancy. The character Bruise has complex feelings surrounding her name, something that transgender folks face routinely. She tells Arugula, “Nobody’s born with a name, Young Blood.”
Space Girl may be a play with a gay lead, but this apple falls far from the tree of Gay Theatre. It is what queer kids need: a story with queer characters that is not a not a “queer story.” Arugula is not the descendant of Angels in America, Torch Song Trilogy, or The Laramie Project.
Mora Harris’ universe takes it as a given that some people are queer. Aside from a couple of giggling schoolmates, no character is fazed by Arugula’s sexuality. It is not the trait around which her life — or this play — revolves. She likes to read, she has a mean temper, and she likes girls. These are equally important story points.
Co-directed by Katy Koop and Sarah Koop, the production echoes the guerilla, DIY sensibilities of their 2016 WTF show, The Amazing C*nt and L’il B*tch Take Raleigh. The production crew and cast both include queer artists and artists of color.
Sarah Koop’s minimalist set relies upon two small platforms and an old-school overhead projector. Sadly, on Sunday afternoon, the projector’s mirror plate tilted downward; and the young actors were unable to find a solution to the problem, leaving the last few scenes awkwardly projection-less. Katy Koop is in charge of a cavalcade of props, including intergalactic brainscan weaponry, marijuana, alien translation devices, and a procession of salads.
Audiences are given the option of sitting on stage amid the action, but this appears largely unnecessary and some of Sunday’s onstage spectators were distracting. This production may require a full house for onstage seating to be effective.
The costumes are designed by Emily Johns and fabricated by Haus Page, a Raleigh-based apparel developer. Victoria Peach designs the many musical and sound effect cues; and Karyn Raynor designs a neon, cosmic lighting scheme, complete with an immersive planetarium starscape.
Under the stage management of Leslie Castro, these elements have all gelled together nicely, though most transitions are too leisurely. The Koops’ pop music choices are clever and true to tone, but a play with 29 scenes cannot afford to have so many full-stops.
The ensemble is fully committed to Harris’ fantastic premise. Amani McKenzie plays Arugula as the “straight man.” Her confusion about social cues and sarcasm (another character wonders aloud if she has Asperger Syndrome) is funny, because McKenzie is so authentic, not because she is ridiculous. Her character’s last moments of introspection are lost, though, as the final scene’s staging is jumbled and unclear.
Nick Popio, who plays Arugula’s dad Nancy, favors honesty over irony. He finds more humanity in an alien character than most actors can find in human characters. My guffaws were interrupted by a welling of tears during his final speech to Arugula. Popio’s is one of the funniest and most endearing performances that I have seen in the Triangle this season.
Lauren O’Neal plays bookish schoolmate Charlotte with sincerity, whereas Elaine Mittleman delivers the Announcer’s preposterous speeches without judgment. Ahhna Beruk plays roller girl Bruise with authority and wisdom, though I wanted to see more vulnerability. As the Usher, Ashley Curry delivers the shows only hammy performance — an ideal contrast to the straight-faced Mittleman.
Kacey Reynolds Schedler climbs Harris’ mountainous sci-fi dialogue with skill as the Zlagdorian Chancellor, but it is her precise performance as the not-quite-sweet Southern schoolteacher that earns the play’s biggest laughs.
If you have middle- or high-school aged kids — daughters, in particular — I highly recommend you take them over to Sonorous Road to catch this show. A relevant, razor-sharp script and sincere performances make Mora Harris’ Space Girl one of the Triangle’s most entertaining productions of the season and an exciting start to the 2017 Women’s Theatre Festival. It could also mark a turning point in queer theatre.
I place this production in PG-13 territory for some adult language.
SECOND OPINION: July 5th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 3.5 of 5 stars): https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/in-womens-theatre-festival-opener-space-girl-alien-love-alienation-and-roller-derby-provide-bittersweet-laughs/Content?oid=6944688 and June 28th preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-womens-theatre-festival-responds-to-americas-ambient-despair-with-a-streamlined-all-comedy-second-season/Content?oid=6875518; June 30th Raleigh, NC Spectrum News interview with actors Nick Popio and Amani McKenzie, conducted by Caroline Blair: http://www.twcnews.com/nc/north-carolina/in-depth-interview/2017/06/30/in-depth–women-s-theatre-festival-.html; and June 30th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with co-directors Sarah Koop and Katy Koop and actors Amani McKenzie and Nick Popio, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/post/space-girl-and-one-alien-teenager-s-journey-through-high-school; and June 23rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article157602389.html.
The Women’s Theatre Festival presents SPACE GIRL at 8 p.m. July 6-8 and 3 p.m. July 9 at Sonorous Road Theatre in the The Royal Bakery Building, 3801 Hillsborough St., Suite 113, Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $18.59, including service fee.
BOX OFFICE: http://spacegirl.brownpapertickets.com/.
INFORMATION: 919-740-2736 or email@example.com.
VIDEO PREVIEW (by Katy Koop): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD-h5Evbk94.
WTF 2017 SEASON: WOMEN ARE FUNNY: http://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/shows.
Mora V. Harris (Pittsburgh, PA-based playwright and screenwriter): https://www.moravharris.com/ (official website), https://newplayexchange.org/users/939/mora-v-harris (New Play Exchange® bio), and http://twitter.com/moraberrypie (Twitter page).
Katy Koop (Raleigh, NC co-director): https://www.facebook.com/athenaksk (Facebook page).
Sarah Elizabeth Koop (Raleigh, NC co-director): https://www.facebook.com/sarah.koop1 (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor, director, and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.