The Chicago Mosaic School isn’t the first or even the fifteenth place most of us would think to perform a play, but Nothing Without a Company isn’t most of us. Then again, with the company’s focus on site-specific work, it’s no surprise they’ve found the perfect unexpected location for their newest production, Bobby Pin Girls by Janey Bell, directed by Ben Kaye. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful lobby than the Mosaic School, with its boxes of colorful tiles and glass. After checking in at the box office, audience members are led upstairs to a teeny-tiny apartment space, splattered with handprints and other artsy touches, including an “art wall” that audience members can draw on, that serves as the set for the show.
In rows of chairs lining the walls, audience members watch as Ana (Grace Hutchings) and Bree (Emilie Modaff), childhood best friends and fellow artistic types, live out their respective romantic difficulties: Ana has a crisis of sexuality after kissing her female director and Bree makes the questionable decision to let her ex-boyfriend Danny crash on their couch while he’s in town. The relationship between Ana and Bree is hands down the best part of the play; Hutchings and Modaff play off one another deftly, nailing both humorous banter and sincere moments of connection with equal skill. The spot-on depiction of the familiarity and ease of a lifelong friendship, complete with friendly ribbing, unapologetic honesty, and unconditional support, shines through in both the script and the acting.
One of my favorite things about Nothing Without a Company’s work is its casual inclusion of diverse actors and LGBTQ storylines. And Bobby Pin Girls has some positive moments for queer representation—I took great pleasure in Bree’s assertion that sexuality is less like a “coin toss” and more like a “grab bag” in response to Ana’s panicked wondering if she’s a lesbian now that she’s kissed a woman and liked it. As a bisexual woman, I find the media’s constant reinforcement of the idea that straight and gay are the only sexual orientations that exist, exemplified by characters like Piper from Orange is the New Black and Kat from the The Bold Type, exhausting, so it was a relief to hear that narrative challenged for once and especially for Bree to explicitly express attraction to multiple genders.
However, all this potential for great bi-/pansexual representation doesn’t stop Ana from asserting that she “might be a lesbian now” multiple times throughout the show. Even worse, the mixed excitement and trepidation of a young woman discovering her sexuality is choked by the power imbalance of a young actress striving for her big break being approached by an older, more accomplished director. In light of the recent slew of such stories coming to light in Hollywood, this storyline feels skeevy, and the fact that it’s played for laughs seems to imply that if a woman initiates inappropriate sexual contact, it’s funny instead of horrifying (an implication shared by the Tony-nominated Hand to God).
This storyline is ultimately overshadowed by the relatively uninteresting relationship between Bree and Danny and by Ana receiving unwanted affections from a different character, also played for laughs but at least managing to conclude with girl power-infused retribution for that character’s overt misogyny. The main issue with Bobby Pin Girls is that, while it’s highly entertaining, the storyline lacks substance. It’s unclear how the characters—or the audience—are meant to be changed by any of the events onstage. At the end of the show, Tim is still awful, Danny is still a drug addict, and Bree and Ana are still young artists struggling to find their way in the world, with no new knowledge or understanding to help guide them.
Nothing Without a Company does remarkable work, and Bobby Pin Girls does have some good things going for it: great jokes, smart actors, a unique and intimate venue. It just doesn’t gel as a whole. Bobby Pin Girls wasn’t my favorite piece from this company, but that doesn’t abate my excitement to see what they do next.
Location: The Chicago Mosaic School at 1101 W. Granville Ave., Chicago, IL
Dates: November 2nd – December 3rd, 2017. No performances Thanksgiving weekend (Nov 23rd – 26th).
Times: Thursday to Saturday at 8pm; Sundays at 6pm.
Tickets: $25 at the door and $20 online. For tickets or more information, visit the Nothing Without a Company website.
All photos by Ray Goldberg.