Review: Religion, Rebellion, and Girls' 'Virtuous Fall' on Stage at The Flea

From left: Shava Clarke, Alia Guidry, Renita Lewis and Pearl Shin in a scene from "The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows." Photo: Phoebe Brooks

May. 19, 2019

Lest we forget that teenage angst was not invented in the era of social media, “The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows,” in premiere at The Flea is here to remind us. In a joyful and soulful production, it examines a group of high school girls as they grapple with adolescence and the mixed messages from the nuns who teach them.

The new play by Gina Femia is paired with a version of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” in a mix of new and old that is the hallmark of Spicy Witch Productions, a group focused on creating more theater opportunities for women. The same cast appears in both plays and there’s a chance on some days to see them as a double bill.

But back to high school. The girls attend Our Lady of Sorrows in Brooklyn and the year is 2002. The era is important as these girls are growing up without the aid of smartphones, social media, facetiming and music streaming. But they are no less confused than any teenager today. The show opens with them all dancing wildly to tunes of the times in their school uniform. When that music abruptly changes to a hymn we meet Sister Ignatius, played with delightful humor and subtlety by Mia Canter. In fact, Canter plays all the nuns in the school—a stroke of comic genius by director Blayze Teicher. While the nuns relate all their classes to the Bible, often resulting in hilarious tautology, the girls are trying to make sense of the 21st century.

Renita Lewis is a commanding presence as Minnie, who is writing a play in lieu of her senior thesis. Her production is to be a version of “Measure for Measure,” notoriously labelled as one of Shakespeare’s difficult plays because it centers on an impossible moral dilemma. It’s an appropriate choice for girls at the Catholic school, as the main character Isabella is a nun. It is also perhaps a stylistic nod to the bard as the play-within-a-play is a device that Shakespeare turned to frequently. The would-be actors are a motley group ranging from Minnie’s sister, here the fresh faced and sensitive Shavana Clark, to a would-be nun played with brilliant sparkle by Pearl Shin. Alia Guidry, Ahil Lee, and Sarah Rosengarten make up the rest of the girls and the entire cast gives outstanding performances, embodying the awkward transition from girls to women.

While the nuns drill biology and chemistry into them, the girls are dealing with menstruation, abusive boys, first loves and whether to take Catholicism at face value. Minnie and her sister Dove are also grieving for their father, a victim of the 9/11 attacks. This detail feels slightly shoe-horned into the play and its ramifications are the least powerful and convincing. But this is quibbling as the rest of the play is more coherently focused on the girls’ decisions on whether to stand up to the teachings of the church or reject them, a dilemma that is handled evenly. One character remains true to the church, while the others exuberantly reject the idea that they are sinning if they fall in love with someone of the same sex, have sex out of wedlock or don’t want to take second place to men. In one mesmerizing scene, a nun tries to justify giving up her childhood ambition to be a priest “because there are rules.” This world of women within the school is still controlled by men.

As artistic director Rebecca Weiss aptly writes in a prologue to the play: “Where do we find laughter and joy in moments of rage and rebellion?

“Measure for Measure,” playing in tandem, takes license with Shakespeare as is the right of any self-respecting director and updates the action to the present. The women in Shakespeare’s original are beholden to a male-dominated world where an unmarried pregnant woman is forever ruined and the father of her child is set to be beheaded for his lack of morals.

This version takes the action out of the ecclesiastical world and into a contemporary justice system that still limits a woman’s autonomy over her body. While the cast of “The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from our Lady of Sorrows” is entirely female, two men, Stephen Zuccaro and Blake Kelton Prentiss, join for the Shakespeare. All of the backstage staff from scenic design to lighting are women—a rarity in theater.

These two excellent productions are running until June 1.They're are an intriguing theatrical reflection of how far women have come in our society, but how far there is still to go.

"The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from our Lady of Sorrows," written by Gina Femia and Directed by Blyze Teicher, is playing through June 1 in rep with "Measure for Measure" at The Flea, 20 Thomas St..

Cast: Mia Canter, Shavana Clarke, Alia Guidry, Ashil Lee, Renita Lewis, Sarah Rosengarten, Pearl Shin