In The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows, girls at a Catholic high school in Brooklyn face religious pressure and the upheavals of growing up. You don’t have to be female, or Catholic, to relate to the adolescents in this sharp, funny new comedy by Gina Femia.
Though the production stands on its own, it’s rewarding to see it in conjunction with its repertory partner, a stripped-down version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure with the same cast. Spicy Witch Productions is presenting both plays at The Flea Theater through June 1. Their Measure for Measure, reviewed here, stresses how the religious patriarchy subjugates and mistreats women. The girls in The Virtuous Fall chafe under religious strictures enforced by women – the nuns who run their school and teach their classes.
The story revolves around the girls’ struggles to freely exercise their creativity and sexuality. Our Lady of Sorrows is run by the kindly Sister Ignatius (Mia Canter, who plays all the other adults as well, and mostly for laughs.) But its regime doesn’t brook serious rebellion. As in Vienna under Shakespeare’s puritanical Angelo, sexuality is strictly constrained. On their own the girls giggle, swear, and talk dirty to their hearts’ content. But in class they’re expected to be well-behaved and virginal. Same-sex attraction is particularly a no-go.
Camaraderie develops among an unlikely assortment of girls rehearsing an original school play. Minnie (a commanding Renita Lewis) has written an adaptation/sequel (it’s never quite clear which) to Measure for Measure in which Shakespeare’s characters all wind up in the Catholic hell. Minnie and her little sister Dove (Shavana Clarke) are still recovering from the recent death of their father. But one gets the sense that even without such a trauma, Minnie would have become a freethinking creative spirit.
As the girls rehearse, they wrestle with the conflicting rights and wrongs of the Catholic church, their increasingly permissive early-21st-century society, and their own developing minds. It all ends with a decisive act of rebellion. Rich characterizations and a rapid sequence of short, often hilarious scenes get us there before we realize two hours have gone by.
Sulky, stormy, too-cool-for-school Maxx (a fiery Ashil Lee) wears a hard edge of generalized resentment like a dragon tattoo. She bemoans life’s unfairness and uncertainty in fiery terms – “Sometimes living on earth can feel like a never ending hellscape” – but expands with more nuance: “We were all just given life and put on this fucking little ball of blue and it’s full of all these people who all want to take us and put us into boxes and…It’s weird being alive.”
Tough-talking, tenderhearted Imogene (a soulful Alia Guidry) begins a hesitant romance with her uncertain best friend Jenny (a subtle, heart-tugging turn by Sarah Rosengarten). Imogene is hilarious trying to rehearse by herself, but an open wound as she’s gently dressed down by Sister Ignatius for her sexuality.
Pearl Shin shines as buttoned-up freshman Mathilda, half-formed just like a real teenager, sincerely religious but questioning her faith. Though anxious to fit in, at her core she’s quietly sure of herself. Between this well-rounded portrayal and her edgy performance as Isabella in Measure for Measure, I was sincerely impressed.
Mathilda has an especially fine moment addressing God in the chapel. It’s paralleled later by an impassioned plea from Lewis’s Minnie, talking first to God, then to the person she really wishes could listen: her absent father. She last parted from him on a bad note and can never make it right. Or can she? She may have broken the commandment to honor one’s parents. But we learn she’s done right by herself and her friends when the girls enact her final rewrite.
The girls’ breakthrough moment during the play within the play makes the “real” play’s end a little facile. But for the characters themselves it feels well deserved, and this solid cast shepherded skillfully by director Blayze Teicher makes them come alive so thoroughly that we root for them without reserve.
The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows runs through June 1 at The Flea Theater in repertory with Measure for Measure. For tickets and information visit Spicy Witch Productions online or call 212-226-0051.