On an island with oneself - SCT cunningly measures 'The Shape of a Girl'

Somewhere on a gravel beach at the edge of an island near Vancouver, B.C., sits a 15-year-old girl on a sun-bleached, driftwood tree. The girl's name is Bradie and, though she is alone, she speaks - or more accurately, unburdens herself - to her absent, older brother, Trevor. Trevor lives in Whistler, having moved from the island he and Bradie have always called home, leaving his sister alone with their mother (dad is frequently away on business), whom Bradie derisively calls "Mum." Mum is a monster in Bradie's eyes for checking up on her daughter's extracurricular activities, encouraging her to go to local dances and shouting at her on occasion. ("Bradie - I have had IT!")

In Seattle Children's Theatre's production of Canadian playwright Joan MacLeod's "The Shape of a Girl," Bradie has her fair share of ordinary teen complaints. But she is also carrying less visible burdens from years of social pathology festering within her circle of girlfriends. It's Bradie's anxieties about her clique's history of cruelty that have brought her to the shore today, rambling meaningfully and sometimes lyrically to Trevor. Between rehashing family memories and whipping up an impressionistic whirl of references - from poet Stevie Smith to disaster footage on television to the trial of several Victoria adolescent girls who killed one of their own - Bradie is circling a point almost too painful to make.

Specifically, Bradie and her lifelong chums Adrienne, Amber, Jackie and Sofie have been engaging in acts of bullying within their ranks, beginning with an odd morning in second grade when Adrienne instituted something called "Penalty Day." Sofie, quiet and dorky (she's been known to eat relish right out of a jar), was the target of Adrienne's organized mean-spiritedness. For the most part she has been ever since, frequently dehumanized and tormented, referred to as "It" and enslaved to the other girls' increasingly violent whims. The years of viciousness have escalated to a horrifying, recent incident in the girls' bathroom at school, falling perhaps just a few short steps of murder.

Bradie's shock and shame - Sofie, at the height of the barbarity, looked right at her in desperation and Bradie could not stop the action - are gradually revealed in MacLeod's play. But before we learn all the facts, we are confronted with various questions about the unique phenomenon of violence perpetrated between girls. What compelled Bradie and her pals to poison their friendship with malice? Why did each of them follow Adrienne's lead without question?

MacLeod skillfully addresses those issues in a way that rounds out her drama and awakens us to the horrors of real-life Bradies and Sofies. We learn, through Bradie's 80-minute monologue, that female bullying happens all the time - it's just more subtle and secret than the overt threats and poundings boys inflict upon one another. Violence between girls isn't necessarily about the same things boys fight over, either: territory, respect, power. For many girls, fitting in with peers is important, so important that common sense and ethics might be put on hold while someone like Bradie tries to sort out the rules of friendship.

The greatest threat Bradie has felt growing up was that she might incorrectly interpret group leader Adrienne's twisted signals and be shunned. It became easier to participate in Sofie's systematic debasement because mastering that system was inherently rewarding - and safer, unless you're Sofie.

It's no easy trick to funnel a topical discussion into a character and make audiences believe in that character heart and soul. Yet MacLeod (who was in the audience for SCT's opening-night presentation of "The Shape of a Girl") has pulled it off, loosely basing the story on the real-life case of Reena Virk, a Canadian girl killed by fellow teens.

MacLeod's powerful text is filled with traces of a young woman's life and busy mind, sudden discoveries and epiphanies and linkages between the familiar and the new. These things, rich with subconscious resonance and internal parallels (e.g., Bradie's discomfort with the word "it," associated both with her mother's and Adrienne's invective), give Bradie real texture and life.

One of the few moments in "Shape" that draws a laugh follows Bradie's recent awareness that a camp for the blind, situated within earshot on a nearby island, must be able to hear everything going on in her world as easily as she has always heard everything going on in theirs. This is no throwaway line: the essential logic resonates with Bradie's rising understanding that one's actions always yield equally forceful reactions. What friends do in private must answer, eventually, to public standards.

Fleshing all this out is director Rita Giomi, who has mounted several of SCT's best and most popular productions of late, including "The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle" and "The Shakespeare Stealer." Giomi has an unusual challenge working with a single set and one character moving about in unbroken time. She and actress Carol Roscoe (a star of SCT's "The Velveteen Rabbit" and recent recipient of an MFA from the Shakespeare Theatre's Academy for Classical Acting at George Washington University) do a terrific job warding off monotony by modulating emotion and tying Bradie's smallest actions to the intensity of the material. The demands on Roscoe, which include acting like a teenager who sometimes regresses into a much younger child during fits of nostalgia, are heavy, but she does it all superbly.

Lighting and sound design also help keep the production from feeling stagnant. Beyond all the technique, SCT is reaching out to audiences on this one by offering extended discussions about issues raised by the play after each performance. Stick around an extra 20 minutes or so with your 12-and-up kids; the time is well worth it.[[In-content Ad]]