Tarragon Theatre & Green Light Arts/Guarded Girls, written by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, directed by Richard Rose, Tarragon Extraspace, Mar. 26 to May 5. Tickets available at 416-531-1827 or tarragontheatre.com
Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman is an intriguing playwright, and perhaps her greatest gift is unpredictability. Not being able to second guess a playwright makes for an enriching theatrical experience. Her latest play Guarded Girls boasts a surprising structure, startling dialogue, and, more to the point, memorable characters performed by a supremely talented cast.
You could say that Corbeil-Coleman has words in the blood. Her late mother, Carole Corbeil, covered theatre, dance and visual arts for the Globe and Mail, wrote a column for The Star, and published two acclaimed novels. Her father, Layne Coleman, is a veteran actor, director, playwright and producer, and a former artistic director of Theatre Passe Muraille. The literary/theatrical genes might be inherited, but Corbeil-Coleman is her own unique wordsmith, with playwriting nominations for both a Governor General’s Award and a Dora Mavor Moore Award to prove it.
In the broad sense, Guarded Girls is an indictment against Corrections Canada. The setting is a woman’s prison where we meet inmates, guards and family members of both. As one inmate tells us, many prisoners arrive with short sentences for selling drugs and the like, but end up committing graver offences in prison which keeps them incarcerated for long periods of time. Is the takeaway here that prison nurtures criminality? Apparently, Corbeil-Coleman did extensive interviews for her research, and her agenda is to present as broad a landscape as she can in terms of what brings different women into the arms of the correctional system. A corollary goal is to concentrate on the human factor. Every character in the play has been impacted by something that was passed on to them, and what we find out about their personal lives is, for the most part, heart-breaking. As Corbeil-Coleman says in her program notes, Guarded Girls is about how hard it is to try to break a cycle, whether in ourselves, our families, our institutions, or society.
Corbeil-Coleman has divided her play into three parts. In the first section, we meet Sid (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) who has just been transferred in. She befriends Brit (Virgilia Griffith), and the two establish a rather bizarre relationship. They engage in role-playing, either pretending to be each other, or a guard, or even a guard mimicking one of them. The two young women could not be more different. Antisocial, combative, tough as nails Sid is from the streets. She is constantly ending up in solitary for baiting the guards. Brit, on the other hand, is intelligent, refined, educated, and poised, and clearly from a higher class of society. That these two find a rapprochement is almost endearing. Brit has an older lesbian lover who means a great deal to her. We hear about her, but never meet her.
The second section is one of abrupt change. It is basically a vibrant monologue by the charismatic Kit (Michaela Washburn) who would seem to have some kind of mental illness, but amid her rambling discourse and mercurial change of thought, she utters pearls of wisdom. One wonderful Kit truism is that at its central core, a prison is all about drugs — those who sell it, those who use it, and those who should be using. In the final section, which is another of Corbeil-Coleman’s unexpected structural shifts, we meet three teenagers (performed by the three leads) who are related to either prisoners or guards. Throughout the play, a fourth character, a mostly silent prison guard (Columpa C Bobb) is an ominous presence. To avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that a shocking incident occurs that unites all the disparate characters together.
Now Corbeil-Coleman’s script isn’t perfect. She does make some big leaps of logic, and some of the happenings and relationships are a bit too contrived, a little too coincidental. As well, her sympathies lie squarely with the prisoners. They may have committed horrible crimes, but Corbeil-Coleman rationalizes motives. All this can be forgiven, however, because the effect of the whole is strong stuff. You can’t leave this performance unmoved.
Which brings us to the pails. That’s right, pails, and oodles of them. One of the jobs of the guard is to bring them on stage. The prisoners sit on them — one even becomes a toilet. At other times, the guard pulls things out of the pails, which are put in baggies as evidence. They also hold changes of clothes. In a wild guess, I’m assuming the pails symbolize lockers or cells. Each one would seem to represent an inmate, because in the play, there is reference to someone having a specific pail, and perhaps, the never-ending parade of them represents the growing number of women prisoners. Kit tells us in her monologue that prisons that started out as promising rehabilitation centres, are reduced to being bunkers due to overcrowding and financial cuts. At any rate, these white pails seem like an odd choice on the part of director Richard Rose, and I found them a distraction. Otherwise, designer Joanna Yu’s empty concrete floor and dark green tracksuits are perfectly realistic. André du Toit’s lighting tries to capture the narrow windows in squares of yellow lights, while Thomas Ryder Payne has once again come up with a suitably gloomy soundscape.
Pails aside, kudos to Rose for brilliant pacing. Not for one moment does the action flag. He has also helped make outstanding actors even more spectacular in their characterizations. Every nuance has been worked to a fine detail.
Corbeil-Coleman’s provocative Guarded Girls is an important play that addresses serious issues. It’s only at the end that you realize just how ironic the title is.