Pictured: Kim Boler, Kirstin Franklin and Madelyn Loehr. Photo by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom
By Elizabeth Ellis
If you ask most Americans with any knowledge of theatre to name any Scandinavian playwrights, most would be hard pressed to name any aside from August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen. However, the Scandinavian dramatic canon of the 20th and 21st centuries is alive and well, and thriving, due in part to playwrights like Astrid Saalbach. With plays geared towards economy of language and deep examinations of the human psyche, Saalbach has created a name for herself in her native Denmark. It makes sense that Akvavit Theatre would choose someone like Saalbach to present a modern Nordic piece in their season at Strawdog Theatre. Though Saalbach’s BAD GIRLS: THE STYLISTS as a script is a confusing blend of dark comedy with absurdist overtones, the terrific acting brings a measure of redemption and offers an excellent showcase for the actors’ versatility.
BAD GIRLS: THE STYLISTS takes place entirely in a hair salon, one of the few domains where women generally exercise complete autonomy. Five talented women (Jennifer Adams, Kim Boler, Jennifer Cheung, Kirstin Franklin, and Madelyn Loehr) portray 28 characters, with minimal costume changes, but with excellent wigs, of course. As the three stylists work, they share the most intimate details of their personal lives, which are as complicated as creating a perfect balayage. Various customers come and go, and one recurring and strange character, referred to as A, spies on the stylists through the salon windows. When a new and mysterious stylist arrives and essentially takes over the salon’s management and money, numerous complications arise and all the stylists suffer the after-effects.
Saalbach’s script meanders between realistic stylist-customer vignettes and zany physical comedy, but without a clear storyline. Choices such as a a stylist going up close and personal in an attempt to help a bride with her vaginismus and the the threat of ganging up on A in a sexual assault are questionable. Neither of which is funny, though the audience was laughing uncomfortably. Why Saalbach chose to add these disturbing and unnecessary elements, in a piece written only four years ago, is beyond me.
Director Breahan Pautsch creates a real sense of friendship and community between the three original stylists. While many of the secondary characters aren’t well developed, Pautsch gives the actors free reign to fill in the empty spaces, which they do well. All five do excellent and admirable work with their many characters, and are fun to watch. Chad Eric Bergman’s flashy silver-laden salon set wonderfully captures the look and feel of so many real salons – all that’s missing is the drone of the hair dryers and the mist of hair spray. Lily Wall’s costumes and Keith Ryan’s wigs are so effective that with just a wig and a few minimal costume changes, each actor easily disappears into her multiple characters.
The fantastic visuals and performances are worth a trip to this salon.
BAD GIRLS: THE STYLISTS runs through April 14th. For more information visit chicagonordic.org.