by SOPHIE KERMAN
Although every woman is different, there are some things that tie us all together – the mental anguish of putting on a pair of nylon stockings, the enormity of a first crush, the strange and wonderful experience of growing boobs and figuring out what to do with them. These common trials and tribulations take the spotlight in Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women, a play which finds humor in all of the gross and awkward womanly moments that we tend to be too shy to talk about in public. Originally written and performed in 2008 by Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein, Girls Only returns to Minneapolis in the chipper and versatile hands of Nicole Fenstad and Melanie Wehrmacher, who – in their various guises – turn everything that is most uncomfortable about womanhood into a cause for bubbly celebration.
There are some plays – The Vagina Monologues is the first that comes to mind – that I would encourage men to see in the name of an educational experience. One of the most refreshing things about Girls Only is that it is not one of those plays. Its title seems to have scared off all but two or three intrepid men, and I must say, there is something powerful about comedy that feels no obligation to explain itself to a male audience. Coming from shared experience rather than self-abasement, the laughter feels more genuine (though, by the same token, less shocking).
The show’s other fresh aspect comes from the venue itself. Just six months ago, the Hennepin Theatre Trust purchased the New Century Theatre, a former commercial space in City Center, and converted it into a 250-seat flexible-use theatre. For Girls Only, they have made the most of the space, with pink cabaret-style tables filling the main floor (they also offer some potent signature cocktails, also pink, to match). The layout – particularly next to Erica Zaffarano‘s set, a re-creation of an absurdly pink preteen bedroom – makes for a show that is a combination sleepover and bachelorette party.
In fact, a sleepover, a bachelorette party, or a shower would all be wonderful occasions to go see Girls Only. Young teenagers will find much to relate to (and not much that would shock or offend), while women of all ages will remember to take themselves less seriously in sketches about bras, breastfeeding and menopause. As Gehring said last year in an interview with the Minnesota Women’s Press, “We don’t go to the dark side.”
It is this insistence on women’s shared comedy that makes for both the play’s frothy fun and its greatest weakness. I’m not bothered by the fact that the play does not break new ground, since its message – one of a shared sisterhood – still seems necessary amid floods of negative or divisive media portrayals of women. But it did strike me that the feeling of commonality, and the ability to laugh together, is a privilege that not all audience members (even female ones) will share. There is little in Girls Only that speaks directly to the experience of queer women, poor women, or nonwhite women. This isn’t to say that these populations won’t find a lot to enjoy and relate to in the play, but rather that they may feel left out of some of the milestones that Girls Only presumes we all share (what if, for instance, a woman’s first middle-school crush was on a Jane instead of a Jeremy?).
These concerns aside, Girls Only does what it does with great energy and a positive spirit that feels sorely needed. As Fenstad and Wehrmacher improvise their way through audience members’ purses or show us all the different ways a menopausal woman can re-purpose her old tampons, they remind us that no matter how secret we think we have kept our insecurities, hormonal fluctuations and embarrassing journal entries, about half the population already knows all about them. So really, the humor is not in the sanitary napkins, but in the fact that we still feel so ashamed to take them out, decorate them, and use them for potpourri. Or… maybe just smile knowingly at them in their usual spot under the sink.
Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women by Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein. Presented by the Hennepin Theatre Trust at the New Century Theatre, 615 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55403. January 18-March 18, 2012. Tickets $20-30 in person at the New Century Theatre, online at HennepinTheatreTrust.org or through Ticketmaster by calling 1.800.982.2787.