Like fish who don’t notice water, we might not think about how media (especially the 24/7 TV news cycle) and the Internet increasingly shape not only our perceptions of the world but our identities and relationships. SadGrrl13 hits with the brute force of a swan dive from a skyscraper into a wading pool—with cameras rolling. Like a George Orwell for an age where Big Brother has his own YouTube channel, playwright Corey Hinkle explores our “media-ated” culture with a style that’s kind of like Expressionism on steroids. SadGrrl13 is the current production from Workhaus Collective, a group producing world premieres of new works by local playwrights. It’s a powerhouse finish to their first season.
SadGrrl13, a play written by Corey Hinkle and directed by Jeremy Wilhelm. Presented by the Workhaus Collective through June 28 at the Playwrights’ Center, 2301 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis. For tickets ($8-$15) and information, see pwcenter.org.
Tyler is an acerbic investigative reporter at an Albany TV station who rails against “missing girl” stories that shove aside other important news. Tyler is played by Clarence Wethern, a New Orleans native who hit TC stages running when he arrived in 2005 and now tours with the National Theatre for Children. Tyler is like an clock that’s wound too tight, with springs about to blow the back off at any second. Nick Crandall (last seen in Theatre Unbound’s Goodnight Desdamona, Goodnight Juliette) is Brian, a novice reporter whose ambitious complicity has totally unforeseen consequences.
Their assignment is wall-to-wall coverage of a missing 13-year-old, known only by her networking site profile name “SadGrrl13” and thought to have been possibly abducted by an Internet predator. Their take-no-prisoners producer Angela is played by Zoe Benston, another Minneapolis newcomer who’s been working nonstop in local theaters—most recently in the History Theatre’s These Shining Lives. Scathing would be an understated description of this character, who wields her authority like a sadistic cop with a Taser. Angela’s motivations for her obsession with the SadGrrl13 story are maddeningly murky—is Angela genuinely concerned about the girl, or does she only care about raising her network’s ratings?
A simultaneous plotline involves Dick Jones, who hunts sexual predators on the Internet. Jones is played by Ed Jones, KBEM’s director of news and public affairs. A retired man living a life of not-so-quiet desperation in his basement, Jones poses as teenage boys and girls to entrap his prey; he becomes a source for Brian’s story. Swinging from low-boil agitation to an edgy vulnerability, Jones is an utterly haunting character.
Jones’s current target is Steve—played by Garry Geiken, a Twin Cities theater veteran who recently played the film maverick Orson Welles twice (in Gremlin’s Orson’s Shadow and the Jungle Theatre’s Orson Welles Rehearses Moby Dick). Geiken’s performance subtly communicates his character’s painful isolation. Amanda Wisner, another veteran actor, plays Jones’s wife Clara, whose relationship to her husband has become a low-grade fever of mutual hostility. She is reduced to the frustrated whine of a wife-become-mother to a husband she has to call to dinner by banging on a locked basement door.
SadGrrl13 is framed by a set that’s integral to the play’s emotional tone. Boxes depict the Jones’s nondescript living room and the reporters’ cubicle, divided by the empty space where Internet encounters between Jones and Steve occur. That center box evokes the screens we’re plugged into for more and more of our waking hours. One technical flaw creates confusion: a screen above the set has ongoing messages, often with cyberspace chat-room code, but it’s unclear where the messages are coming from. I guessed they might represent the thoughts of whomever was speaking. By the end, it had become clear that the messages were coming from SadGrrl13 herself. (A glossary of what all the chat-lingo acronyms stand for would be helpful for those of us who don’t spend our time on MySpace.)
This play does have one significant flaw: the female characters are painfully one-dimensional stereotypes. The Bitch Boss, the Nagging Wife and the Generic Victim. The only standard female tropes playwright Corey Hinkle has omitted are the Sexy Whore and the Self-Sacrificial Earth Mother. Perhaps this talented playwright is making a comment on sexism in media representations of women, but since the male characters are fully drawn, I’m skeptical. When one can create compassion for a pedophile, one ought to write three-dimensional female characters as well.
SadGrrl13 is richly multi-layered with themes: corporate-sponsored news “infotainment”; the flexible nature of identity in cyberspace; the ethical implications of what might be seen as entrapment; the possiblity of emotional alienation while being constantly hooked up to communication technology. Unlike what passes for the daily news broadcast, SadGrrl13 keeps you on the edge of your seat without sacrificing substance.
Like a car with a gas pedal frozen to the floor, SadGrrl13 careens towards a stunning conclusion that left me feeling as though I’d been hit by a car that then backed up and rolled over me a couple of times. A risk-taking playwright, a brilliant director, and an amazing cast pull off this provocative play with an impact that punches you in the guy while filling your head with questions. I predict SadGrrl13 will be among the top plays of 2008. Don’t miss it.
Lydia Howell (email@example.com), a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst:politics & culture on KFAI Radio.