The Refugee Girls Revue: A Musical Parody
nytheatre.com review by Emily Otto
August 17, 2008
In The Refugee Girls Revue, playwright/comedian Jena Friedman takes satirical aim at so many targets that it would be easy for her to miss the mark here and there. Yet somehow, improbably and fantastically, she hits them all dead-on. Rampant consumerism? Check. Pious political correctness? Check. Earnest, simplistic definitions of global crises? Check. The self-centered determinism of both the U.S. government and teenage girls? Check. I could go on and on. With The Refugee Girls Revue, Friedman and her creative team offer a razor-sharp satire that joyfully skewers the American Dream in all of its commercialized glory.
The Refugee Dolls are, of course, a wicked parody of the American Girl Dolls. For anyone who's been fortunate enough to miss the American Girl phenomenon, here's a nutshell explanation. These dolls, all of which have a name, a historical or contemporary setting, and a full story, come from varied ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but they're all plucky young heroines meant to inspire an independent spirit and an inclusive world view in young girls. A noble goal, certainly, but since each doll costs close to $100, not including the arsenal of books, furniture, clothing, and accessories (which could easily total $1000 for each doll), the products are really only accessible to girls far more wealthy than those American Girl claims to represent.
In The Refugee Girls Revue, a group of teenage girls gather regularly to tell the stories of their favorite Refugee Girl Dolls, complete with songs and role-playing. The dolls include various girls who have come to America to escape disaster in their home countries (such as Fallujah Jones from Iraq, Bahati Smith from Darfur, and Payne Gone from Indonesia, who rode the wave of a tsunami all the way to a better life in America), as well as girls struggling right here in the U.S. (Lily Lakota No Last Name from Illinois, sisters Katrina and Rita Brown from Louisiana, and Kyoto Kanary, an Alaskan Inuit whose igloo melted due to global warming.)
The cast's performances of these stories are simultaneously wide-eyed and knowing. One recurring bit, in which a girl introduces her doll with respectful seriousness and then flings it carelessly offstage, never gets old. The actors' combination of sweetness and cruelty maximizes laughs by shrewdly wrapping incisive political commentary in a sugary coating. The entire cast brings great comic timing and endless energy to the production. Special mention must be made of Ruth Gamble, who can wring belly laughs out of the audience whether she's playing Kyoto Kanary, the hearing-impaired Native American Whatchusay, or just regular girl Katie, with braces, a slight lisp, and the enthusiasm of a steam train. I was also impressed by Lauren Van Kurin, who portrays a veritable menagerie of incidental adult characters with the manic ferocity of a female Jack Black, and Dave Hill, who, as the "Token Male" (his character name), is cleverly clueless as a half-dozen different impotent male characters.
With all due respect to Hill's performance, it's truly exciting to see a cast of ten (!) fearless and funny women carrying a sharp political show written by a young female comedian. Friedman's brutally funny and unique view of the absurdity of our world makes her a comic force to be reckoned with. Keep an eye out for her standup as well as her future theatrical endeavors. And see this show while you can. I suspect it's the most fun you'll have at FringeNYC this year.