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Local Girls — Azuka Theatre at the Drake

Photo by Johanna Austin, www.AustinArt.orgMary Tuomanen is racking up a number of distinctions this season.

And particularly in 2016.

The most fleeting is being the lead in every show that’s appeared so far on the larger stage at the Drake. That’s a coincidence that would be hard for anyone to sustain.

The most lasting is the excitement of her work. In InterAct’s “#TheRevolution,” Tuomanen brought texture and dimension to a piece that impressed intellectually but scored its most dramatic points when she was on stage as The Witness, a person who saw a crime and was more fascinated with the audacity than the violence of it, leading her to choose to bond with the criminal, politically and socially, instead of reporting her to the police. She enlivened a piece that would have been one-note and stale without her.

She does no less in her current role, Riley, in Emma Goidel’s frequently funny, but more hip than hep play, “Local Girls,” for Azuka Theatre.

“Local Girls” is even more about bonding than “TheRevolution.” The unexpected friendship of an unlikely pair is its primary plot gambit.

Again, Tuomanen dominates all around her and makes Goidel’s play more interesting and provocative when she is involved in a scene.

This is not meant as a slap to the other friend in the misfit relationship Goidel creates. Anna Zaida Szapiro gives a strong, amusing, inventive performance of her own, just as Brett Ashley Robinson and Anita Holland made impacts in “#TheRevolution.” Tuomanen just adds exponential factors to her energy and intensity. You feel her as a force of nature and fount of creativity in your midst.

Her work this season, and I am including “Andy: A Popera” and “Bitter Homes and Gardens” with the rest, is incandescent. She generates her own electricity. The great part is within her vibrancy, she can craft such deep and faceted characters. Goidel endows Riley with a variety of traits, and Tuomanen makes each of them clear and meaningful. Riley is not the most likeable character. She’s not even the most likeable character Tuomanen has played on the Drake stage. Tuomanen makes her fascinating. You glean all of the elements that compose Riley’s personality and stances in visceral ways that go beyond descriptions or impressions in the text. Riley, who is lesser hands might be so gruff, so gratuitously rebellious, and so bossy, you’d kick her to the curb as a nasty bit of piffle, becomes the voice for people, and particularly girls, who are underestimated everywhere. Her anger has a root Tuomanen makes real and essential, even though it is also typical and clichéd. She also has ambitions that are common in plays like “Local Girls,” but Tuomanen’s level of belief, commitment, and desire make you care whether Riley achieves what she wants. Even when you know it’s impossible for her to succeed , you hope she does because Tuomanen has convinced you Riley has so much at stake and that, at age 18, a failure might influence the rest of her life.

Szapiro is excellent. Nerdy traits she gives her character, Diskit, named by her hippie parents for a remote place in Nepal’s Himalayas, which she, to Riley’s chagrin, insistently pronounces correctly as “Him-AHL-yas, register as witty and endear you to Diskit, a born outsider that has the moves to be cool but the nature to be vanilla when flavor is called for.

Diskit is the character that is more interesting in the confines of her bedrooms, where she listens to music and dances with un-self-conscious abandon, than in school, where she tends to be bashful, withdrawn, and — back to the word that fits — nerdy, as in a mild eccentric who lives and thrives in her own world but would like to fit more into society and be part of something her imagination and talent for self-entertainment doesn’t have to enhance because it’s there and real.

Riley is there and real. She is in your face if you get too near to her face.

Riley is a rock musician. Metal is her metier. Loud is her forte (no pun intended). Riley wants to make bold sounds and make bold, angry statements. The trouble is she lacks the artistry and originality to realize that intention. She also lacks the charm and patience to lure people who might have more talent to her. Riley is happiest with friends, also of modest talent, she can bully and force to indulge her tantrums and musical decisions.

Riley and cohorts are band-worthy. You can listen to them, and they don’t bore. They just don’t go much beyond competence. If Riley could control her fits of anger and derision, they could probably entertain decently enough at a club, playing covers of hits and trying to sneak in one of their original mediocrities, They are not likely, as much because of age and experience as an unformed sound, to fulfill Riley’s ambition of winning a the regional branch of a national contest and leaving exurban Atlanta in a cloud of dust with a hearty, “Good-bye suckers.”

As played by Tuomanen, Riley has a lot of prove. She eschews academics, thinking math in particular a waste, disdains anything conventional, loathes her family to the point of having to escape it, and takes a belligerent cynical view of everything, including herself.

You can see a lot of rebellious young dramatic characters in Riley. Goidel doesn’t her apart, but Mary Tuomanen does.

“Local Girls,” a world premiere, is a play that can easily be dismissed. Tuomanen and Szapiro eke as much as they can out of their characters. Allison Heishman is just as resourceful, giving the play a brisk, comic pace that serves it all and going for flights of fancy when a character just has to express her- or himself via music or dance.

The dance sequences are especially good and spark Heishman’s entire production in a way Tuomanen usually has to manage alone.

The dancer that makes the difference is Szapiro, whose bedroom choreography is simultaneously creative and hilarious (especially when she mimes mounting a horse, and who has a knack for doing the deliberate, angular, robotic moves today’s pop bands foist on their audiences in a way that both spoofs and celebrates such spasmodic motion.

Thanks to Toumanen, Szapiro, and Heishman, there’s a lot to see and savor in “Local Girls.” Goidel abets them and other cast members with an occasional line or observation that earns legitimate laughter, but in general, her play suffers from a malaise I have seen in epidemic quantity in 2016, mistaking sporadic good ideas, whimsical thoughts, and strong comic comeback lines for telling a deep, involving, trenchant story.

I feel as if I’m seeing more quirky, idiosyncratic spewing of eccentric ideas than thoughtful, well-crafted, enlightening plays.

I don’t expect masterpieces on a regular basis. Entertainment is enough for me with more being a dividend. But facile maunderings seem to be the way of current playwriting. Rachel Bonds is about the only new voice that has been impressive, and that’s because she packs so much genuine depths into her seemingly simple pieces.

Today, getting to 90 minutes is an effort for most playwrights. Frankly, I’m getting tired of the laziness and shorthand that is presented as a full play. Especially when you can see the playwright struggling to find enough to say, or enough variations on a theme.

You want to see short form that works and is complete. Read Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” or Ben Lerner’s “Leaving Atocha Station.” These, like Bonds’s work, which is more valuable because it’s for the theater, demonstrate how to make the spare and compact count.

The list this winter keeps growing, Emma Goidel joins Ike Holter, Julia Cho, Clara Brennan, Kim Davies, and Kristoffer Diaz is delivering the half-baked as a finished production. At least Diaz broached a generally untouched subject in a way that shows his high quality of mind while Cho managed to entertain when she didn’t get tangled in her own conceit. The others offered novelties, plays that hint at something broad, naughty, current, or edgy but rarely go past the suggestion. Superficiality, the mere mentioning of a condition or situation, or the planting of jokes, even good jokes, becomes the sum of the activity. And these sums are rarely saved by their individual parts. On the contrary, it’s the sequences and scenes that don’t add up to a full, satisfying construct. Brennan at least provides texture as she spins a tale in “Spine” that doesn’t quite become a play, and Davies has the advantage of Deborah Block, Matteo Scammell, and Merci Lyons-Cox taking her material for broke and accelerating it towards thrilling. But empty is empty, facile is facile, and second-rate is second-rate. We have to start demanding more of our playwrights. The slap-on-the-forehead, I-have-a-random idea claptrap they’re handing down won’t do. Me for a Lillian Hellman festival!!!

Goidel’s quirks are amusing. “Local Girls” entertains well enough. Jahzeer Terrell, Tabitha Allen, and Sam Henderson all do credit to their parts and join Tuomanen and Szapiro in keeping Heishman’s wise production light and funny, but “Local Girls” offers no new insight. It presents situations but is never profound or intensely dramatic in following them through.

Goidel constantly presents, and mistakes, character’s declarations about McDonald’s, cakes, smoking, and other matters to show her ability as an observer and listener. She wants to put the young on stage, talking about things of interest to high-schoolers. While these flights of character fancy register as accurate and are diverting in their silly way, they don’t really denote a character’s personality of make him or her interesting. Jahzeer Terrell is disarmingly likeable as Roe, the most everyday of Riley’s bandmates. He has an easy boyish charm that make you like him and listen when he rhapsodizes over something inane, but neither Terrell’s pleasantness nor the airy goofiness of what he says had any importance.

That’s the problem with “Local Girls.” It’s momentary high points don’t add up to anything that lasts or seems critical to know. Goidel brings together two young women who are disparate in lifestyle and attitude, but that part is comme il faut. She has characters express their discomfort and dissatisfaction with conventional life, especially as their families and authorities try to impose it on them, but these are random shouts in the wilderness. They make us understand and feel for the character in question, usually Riley or Diskit, but they don’t resonate past the instance they are employed to heighten drama.

Goidel is lucky to have Allison Heishman as the director of this premiere. She endowed her staging with enough life to keep it going for the 90 minutes it takes, Tuomanen supporting her, of course. In general, “Local Girls” treads common ground and while not objectionable or boring, says nothing new or profound about it.

Its main assets are its two lead characters and the women playing them.

Anna Zaida Szapiro immerses herself in Diskit’s individuality. This is a girl who decidedly marches to her own drum, but not out of rebellion or forward motion, like Riley does, but because she hasn’t heard many other drums. Her life is isolated and confined to her bedroom, where fantasies can unleash, and school.

Diskit’s mother has abandoned the family to run off and seek adventure and independence. Her father, an unreclaimed hippie in spite of his haircut and quiet life, is a failed musician who did good work that didn’t catch on. He encourages Diskit to ignore everything but music. He is content working at an administrative job, but he longs for his days with his guitar and the dreams a career as a wandering minstrel presented.

Diskit’s taste in music is an unconventional as everything else about her. The good thing is she’s open to all styles and tastes. And she likes doing highly physical, highly intense dance moves as she sings or listens to favorite songs.

Diskit and Riley are brought together when the high school assigns Diskit to tutor Riley in chemistry, which she is flunking and will have to repeat in summer school if she wants to graduate.

Riley doesn’t give a rodent’s petoot about chemistry or graduation. By the time she’d complete summer school, she expects to be touring the country as Georgia’s winner in a metal band competition. Her interest in less in periodic tables or compounds and precipitants as in who can manage a deep, loud scream necessary for metal vocals now that one of her bandmates has deserted.

Riley doesn’t yet know Diskit has the vocal chops she needs. She learns this while challenging Diskit to break out of her goody-goody ways and join her in chugging an illegal beer. The brew makes Diskit regurgitate, in process of which she bellows the scream Riley seeks. See what I mean — quirk, quirk, quirk, payoff — but no dramatic repercussion beyond the joke.

Riley’s relationship with everyone is rocky. She’s too self-absorbed, angry, and domineering for anything else. Roe and another friend, Shanice, stick with her, mainly because she’s their leader and gives them a purpose through music, but Riley is not for all tastes and will alienate as much she’s alienated. The crux of Goidel’s play in how opposites like Riley and Diskit get together and form a genuine and deep friendship. You see this develop and are content to watch it, but, again, nothing major on new happens. Once more, sound and fury have been substituted for context and emotion. Goidel and “Local Girls” joins the 2016 offerings that diverted but the depended too much on the sudden, periodic inspiration to go beyond pedestrian and remained firmly on the ground between high points.

Tabitha Allen’s Shanice is well-played but isn’t given enough to do to make her presence important. Sam Henderson captures the feel on the ’70s person in his ease and dreaminess. Henderson is so laid back and given to bygone attitudes and vocabulary, you’d think he remained affected by some of the weed he inhaled in his youth.

Robert Kaplowitz’s music is perfect for the sound Riley says she wants to create.

“Local Girls” runs through Sunday, March 13, as presented by Azuka Theatre at the Drake, on S. Hicks Street, at Spruce or Pine just west of S. 15th Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-563-1100 or by visiting www.azukatheatre.org. Grade: C

 

 

 

 

 

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