I have a confession to make: I have never been a teenage girl. Shocking, I know.
And despite the factory of entertainment industry products on the subject, from My So-Called Life to Welcome to the Dollhouse, even those awful sex-ed videos from middle school, I still feel like I have no handle or potential to empathize with the condition. Half of this is because it’s a place I will never find myself in, half is because the message communicated to me is that I can’t possibly understand. And I’m not trying to express this in a stand-up comedy, misogynisticky way: I simply remain utterly confused by teenage girldom, probably more from culture than actual human interaction and investigation.
That being said, I’ve looked into Phoebe Gloeckner’s incredibly popular graphic novels, Diary of a Teenage Girl. The adaptation I am about to see is of Minnie, an allegedly fictional account of growing up in 60s-hungover 1970s San Francisco. The story is heartbreaking and intense, to the point where the melodrama of all events in the teenage girl’s life is transposed into stark black-and-white action.
Marielle Heller (who also plays the lead role) has adapted the graphic novel into a new play at 3LD Arts Center: no small feat considering the spatial and temporal breadth of the original story. She condenses the story to the complications of protagonist Minnie and her relationship that forms with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe. Sexual awakening and falls from innocence ensue to an almost absurd degree, as Minnie gets mixed up with heroin addicts and seedy rapists. The performances of the cast are uniformly strong and delightful, and I’d be remiss not to give a shout-out to Michael Laurence, who plays the burnt-out and lost Monroe with the utmost sincerity; we almost forgive him for his shortsightedness and Humbert Humbert desire.
Rachel Eckerling’s and Sarah Cameron Sunde’s direction has all the fun and freneticism of the 16-year-old worldview, and the video design by C. Andrew Bauer that covers the walls of the space in 360 degrees is awesome. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the production is the space itself—it’s huge. Staged in the round, the intimacy and scatteredness of the action get swallowed up. Mocked up to have the feel of a 70s living room, I wished that the playing space were at least half the size it is. I simply didn’t feel at home and, by extension, implicated in the action and sympathetic to the situation. Perhaps because of the form of the graphic novel adaptation, I was hoping for something more otherworldly and dark. But the characters gallivant around the audience more like the cast of Three’s Company.Nevertheless, Diary of a Teenage Girl is a wonderful experiment in the cross-pollination of an increasingly accepted art form into performance. Instead of falling into the campy zeitgeist of This Film or That Show: the Musical!, the production deals in genuine experience and incredibly difficult issues. I remain totally mystified.