Hangman School for Girls is an exorcising first work of writer Lucy Gillespie, one which follows Hazel, a pariah through her years at a well-established boarding school. The story is packed into a quick tempo two hours, where imagination, psychological turns and creative staging conjure an intense sense of involvement with Hazel’s story and her bearings on reality. Leta Tremblay, director of Girls, calls it a story of “an outcast, the lowest of the low.” But as for its directing, it is in fact at the top: the synchronicity of exaggerated movements, the concentration of the actors, in particular Sarah Anne Masse and Laura Wiese, and the bold usage of space make this a robust piece. The five actresses begin by playing childish games of pretend, in which Chelsea, played by Masse, is the clear leader, symbolized by her standing on a chair and balancing a book on her head. The games they play are always sharply driven by the power relationships of the girls, and lines are crossed. The pretend seems awfully real: at some moments, the lights change to a menacing red, and the chants of the girls who taunt Hazel bring her once to tears of terror.
The hostility of Hazel’s school environs drives her deeper into her imagination and she only finds consolation in a desk, played by Nick Afka and a desk, literally. The desk is so fashioned that Afka sits on an extra posterior bench, and manipulates the drawer in front of him in a cartoonish fashion. At one point Hazel, played by Gilliespie, sits reading on the desk, while Afkas' hands connect to her shoulder, although he himself appears “turned off.” The symbiosis of man and object is one of many clever stagings in this piece. The subtext of Girls is also noteworthy; the power dynamics serve as a commentary on the law or authoritarian relationships, which is represented in mock trials.
Throughout the play the process of the girls' maturation is symbolized by their dialogue (spoken in English accents) and their costuming. They remove their red sweaters, open their blouses, exchange their flats for pumps, wear make-up and by the end reach sexual maturity. The desk is driven mad by the generations of blossoming bodies of girls who sit upon him. It is this endless cycle which makes the “uniqueness” of Hazel seductive enough to bother both of them. A relationship, however unconventional, ensues. In the end, it has profound consequences for desk as well as girl.
Manhattan Theater Source, where the show is playing, is a unique space with a façade of intricate wrought iron filigree painted fading red. Inside a stage greets one on the right, then one ascends to the black box of Vanguard Theater upon a tree house-like set of stairs with a multipurpose landing situated half-way up, hovering in the main room. The black box seats approximately 65 people, although the first row spectators will be uncomfortably close to the action. The set design of this production is simple: desks, faux- lockers and clocks, a chalkboard, and a map of England-- it serves its purpose well. The space creates a pleasurable, intimate setting, and intensifies the connection of the audience.
Because the story line is very unique, it may not satisfy those looking for a traditional ending-- or middle for that matter. As a piece of new writing, however, it is very psychologically engrossing and for its directing and staging Girls deserves some recognition. If nothing else, there is a shocking love scene with desk - perhaps that says it all.