Madeleine Maby and Ryan Canfield, above, star in the theatrical adaptation of Aimee Benders story
collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.
Magical realism on page is a little unreal on stage
By Rachel Breitman
At the start of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, the black-walled stage appears as sparse as the beginning of the first story, with little furniture other than a mattress on the floor and lamps aligned in a loft above. By the end of the fifth and last story, the same space has become littered with discarded costume changes, and the walls are smeared with chalk drawings. The nine-person cast dances breathlessly, and the audience is left exhausted, inspired, and slightly perplexed by what they have seen.
The script, adapted by Bridgette Dunlap from Aimee Benders collection of short stories by the same name, stays very close to the original text. Benders terse, poetic writing style adjusts easily to spoken word, and some of the stories fantastical descriptions beg to be recreated visually onstage. Dunlaps enactment of these images are particularly memorable, including an imp on stilts, a mermaid who covers her tail by a single boot and walks with a crutch, and beautiful starlet who develops a humped back.
Some of the magic lends itself easily to modern-day metaphor. The woman who balefully tells the story of a lover evolving in reverse gets easy belly laughs from the female members of the audience. Hes shedding a million years a day, she says, as she chronicles his devolution from human to ape to sea turtle.
Others stories could have used a more extensive adaptation. Too-quick character conversions and confusing switches between reality and fantasy are given short shrift as the actors throw clothes and props around, scream, cry, laugh, and write on the walls. In the story of a pregnant teen who falls in love with her hunchbacked step-uncle, the rapid evolution from pregnancy to love to disillusionment, rejection, and a progeny who becomes an adult in a matter of seconds give the spectator a feeling of puzzlement and whiplash.
Benders stories of beautiful and sometimes tragic deformities work best when they remain in the world of childhood. The adolescent angst and insecurity fit perfectly in a world of strange bodily abnormalities. Elizabeth Neptune is delightful as a male teenage imp, who struts around stage on stilts and impresses his peers by telling bawdy jokes and smuggling beer into class in the story Drunken Mimi. His awkward flirtation with Mimi, the class mermaid, is so deliciously realistic that the fact that they are mythical creatures blends seamlessly into the background. In The Healer, Kathryn Ekblad fills a challenging role of a teen with a hand of fire who goes from being a cool oddity to a shamed pariah. The story includes real-world elements, such as a parentless teenage boy who cuts his own skin for comfort, and a communitys shifting fascination and discomfort with difference.
When the stories stray into world of more complicated adult familial relations, the rapid revolution into the bizarre becomes jarring and even detracts from the deeper messages. In the last piece in the collection, from which the play gets its title, the presence of talking mice and a boyfriend kept in a trunk are far-fetched distractions from the story of a painful love between an aging and disabled father and his daughter, who ends up bearing the weight (literally) of much of his illness.
The stories deal blithely with incest, self-mutilation, and family resentments, but the darker scenes, like the incarcerated fire girl amputating her hand, are probably the most powerful. Benders stories are lyrical, bizarre, and delightful, but sometimes the movement from humor to pain, real to surreal, and child to adult on the page should have been dealt with differently onstage.