From the wholesome adventures of Nancy Drew to the neo-noir high-school high jinks of TV’s Veronica Mars, the girl gumshoe has carved out a solid niche in popular culture. In Kelly Link’s fantastical short story The Girl Detective, the title sleuth doesn’t have a perky name—adept at solving tricky cases and nabbing criminals, the Girl Detective is on the hunt for her missing mother, whose name (she suspects) may very well be the same as her own. And to say it out loud might just be bad luck. Under the inspired vision of director and adapter Bridgette Dunlap, the Ateh Theater Group has revived its acclaimed production of The Girl Detective for the Crown Point Festival. As in its 2005 adaptation of Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (another collection of surrealist short stories), The Girl Detective presents an enchanted dreamscape filled with charged ideas, vivid colors, intriguing premises, and precious little solid ground. Dunlap has an acute eye and an undeniable talent for riffing on the bold, eclectic, and downright bizarre; even when this production loses a bit of its steam, it still keeps us looking for what might be just around the next corner.
The production blares to life in a colorful montage of bodies writhing to a jazzy, frenetic beat. The Girl Detective (the haunting Kathryn Ekblad, in a pretty blue dress and headband that evoke Alice in Wonderland) gracefully breaks up fights, returns purses to their rightful owners, and generally makes the world right.
But all is not right in her own world. Ignoring her father’s pleas, the Girl Detective has stopped eating. Instead, she visits—and devours—people’s dreams. Slipping through the subconscious world, she’s on the lookout for her mother, who vanished when she was young. Is her mother dead? Or on vacation? And why won’t anyone speak of her? When she gets wind of a story about tap-dancing bank robbers, the Girl Detective suddenly feels like she might be on the right track.
As they create designer Emily French’s appropriately minimalist sets, the energetic ensemble scurries on and off the stage, and it is through their direct address that we learn the most about the Girl Detective, in both what she is and what she is not. “The Girl Detective doesn’t care for fiction,” one character remarks. But, “she feeds her goldfish,” adds another.
Still, despite this accumulation of random facts—and the insights of the Guy Detective, who sits in a tree to “detect” the Girl Detective—the wispy central character remains mysterious and hazy, as does the plot. The story extends from “real” life into the underworld, but there’s not much to distinguish these settings (which may be the point). Ultimately, the Girl Detective’s quest gets a bit lost in the weird and wonderful tapestry that surrounds her.
Dunlap provides an often captivating animation of Link’s story, and she crams a vibrant assortment of styles—including tap and swing dancing—into the narrative. These sequences are polished and pulsating, but they often linger too long, and the overall pacing of the show drags at times. Ill-placed, shadowy lighting further obscures the production.
Clearly, the ever-elusive Girl Detective, that master of disguise, is meant to be a metaphor for our search for what we’ve lost. But the story—and this production—doesn’t have enough punch or snap to jolt us out of our apathy. It does, however, form a lovely, if somewhat spacey, meditation on loss, which is becoming a familiar theme on New York stages, from The Civilians’ pithy musical Gone Missing to the lyrical grace of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. These productions, along with The Girl Detective, explore loss from stylized, wacky angles—here’s hoping they ultimately find their way to more solid ground.