"Emotional Creature" is a play currently midway through its run at Cyrano's that sets out to explore the inner lives of 21st century women around the world -- the ways they speak out, stay silent, rebel and conform.
This is not a single dramatic narrative but a series of monologues interspersed with some ensemble pieces and musical numbers. It's performed by seven young Anchorage actresses who sometimes play the same character in different scenes but more often jump to different roles and cultures.
If this sounds a bit like "The Vagina Monologues" 2.0 to you, you're not far off. Both productions were written by feminist playwright Eve Ensler. According to the program, Ensler penned a book that became the basis for "Emotional Creature" following conversations with young women in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts -- almost none of whom could think of a single good thing about being a girl.
The Anchorage production benefits greatly from a lively and committed cast, a diverse group of young women directed by Vivian Melde. With just one exception (a rapid-fire group scene about thinspiration websites) the players managed to project changes in mood, personality and accent with force and clarity.
What's more remarkable, the actresses are almost all exceptional singers, making the surprisingly catchy musical numbers, accompanied by pianist Cathleen McLaughlin and violinist Quoc Doung, some of the play's most enjoyable moments.
Unfortunately, the cast isn't served as well by Ensler's material. The structure of the play jumps suddenly, jarringly, from high school cliques to human trafficking and rape in the Congo, and the script has some truly groan-worthy, heavy-handed lines. The chorus calls out the "dream takers / horizon breakers" in one song, and it's a testament to composer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder's score and Molly Dieni's singing ability that lines like, "It's suddenly so dark / Like Antarctica in my heart," come off as well as they do.
You can often feel Ensler struggling imaginatively to inhabit her characters -- whether it's because they are several generations removed from her own, or because the women are from such profoundly different backgrounds. This play lacks the startling, and often quite funny, specificity of "Vagina Monologues" and seems to lean on either well-trodden "Mean Girls" tropes or news headlines about human-rights tragedies.
While the actresses can be commended for tackling monologues about sex slavery, rape, kidnapping and genital mutilation, an intermission would have been a much-needed breather between the topics.
There's a lot of heavy stuff in this play but some bright spots as well -- among them Rachel Cheathon's sassy musical number about a woman's right to wear short skirts and DaYoung Yoo's poignant and funny monologue "Free Barbie," about a child laborer in a Chinese toy factory.
This is Theater with a Message, of course, and there's nothing subtle about it (the big musical finale begins with the declaration, "We are the girls who refuse to have our clitorises cut!"). But the message is important -- the kinds of human-rights abuses the play depicts are real, and they are often too easily ignored from across the world.
Perhaps Ensler was attempting to put these experiences on a spectrum -- to show that Western demands on girls to be thin and pleasant are borne of the same regime of power and control that enslaves women in Africa.
Whatever the intention, the effect is that you'll leave Cyrano's Theatre thanking your stars if high school bullying is the worst you had to go through.
"Emotional Creature" will play 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sundays through March 8 at Cyrano's, 413 D St. in Anchorage. Tickets are $28-$30 at centertix.net.