In February, 2009 I fell in love with a little girl named Elsa. She sprang to life at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace with the help of the extraordinary Maja Ardal, playwright and performer of You Fancy Yourself, for which she earned the Dora Award for outstanding performance. She went on to tour the play to the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and across England with Farnham Maltings. Well, now Elsa and Ardal are back at Passe Muraille in a brand new play called The Cure for Everything which plays there until December 4th, 2010.
Elsa is now fourteen and finds her world turned upside down during the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when not only does she realize that she has a lot to accomplish before the end of the world, but she also finds herself in the company of the most popular girl in school. A few days before seeing this show, a friend and I were discussing how teenagers are often portrayed in the mainstream media and how rarely these stereotypes accurately reflect the depth of emotional intensity in adolescence. My friend then said something that I found particularly insightful, that what the media doesn’t seem to understand is that teenagers care a lot; they just care zealously about things that adults may not consider significant. Ardal is not at all condescending in her portrait of the teenagers she has created, each one is a meticulous individual, and all of them have an ardent desire for friendship, independence and to feel as though they belong in their homes, at school, and especially with their friends.
As a playwright Maja Ardal is particularly brilliant at capturing the feelings of young Elsa in a way that reflects her age in the most elegant and perceptive way. When Sheena, the most popular girl in school, admires her Beatles tights, Elsa tells the audience that she was, “staring at me like I’m worth it.” Later she laments, “Everything about me is wrong, I hate Sheena Johnson and I must become her friend!” which I think perfectly captures the contradictory logic that often dominates adolescents fixated on being accepted and having their every decision affirmed by the crowd.
In the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Elsa learns about Sheena’s dark and very disturbing secret, which is both the source of her power and what makes her tragically vulnerable, and together they set out on achieving Elsa’s list of things to do before she dies: get drunk, lose her virginity, have a baby and get famous (although perhaps not in that order). Elsa is smitten by Brian Baxter, an older boy who stands at the fence of her school and watches the crowd of girls in their uniforms as they head across the meadow toward their homes. With Sheena by her side, she will finally have the opportunity to speak to the subject of her affection.
Mary Francis Moore has directed this piece with warmth and a great use of space, movement and imagination. The most vivid are the moments when Ardal mimes specific routines, such as getting ready to go to a pub, in a way that allows the Passe Muraille Backspace to become filled with the world of the play in the audience’s mind. The use of music is also used effectively to bring energy and excitement, while rooting the play, and Elsa, in its place in history.
Ardal inhabits all her characters with precision and chutzpah. Each one is at once reminiscent of someone that you likely knew in Junior High or High School, but also rooted firmly in their own unique physicality and individuality. Brian is diffident, but charismatic in a chilled out way, Sheena has a deep sultry voice that gives her the facade of maturity and allows her to cut through the chatter of everyone else. Elsa still has her delightful exuberance from childhood, but tries to adopt a cooler veneer, although she can never shake her good, warm heart and her sensitivity even when they threaten to sabotage her opportunity to ever feel cool.
The Cure for Everything is a poignant and heart warming story about our endearing heroine’s struggle to find the balance, as I think most fourteen year olds do, between a desire to enter the exciting adventures of adulthood and the warm safety of childhood that seems to glow brighter and more appealing the further one wanders away from it.
If you fancied Elsa in Ardal’s last show, there is even more to love of her now.
The Cure for Everything plays at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Avenue), until December 4th, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.504.7529 or go online to http://www.passemuraille.on.ca/.