The Girl Detective
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
February 23, 2007
Fans of author Kelly Link will be pleased to know that the Ateh Theater Group's new adaptation of her short story, The Girl Detective, is faithful to its source. I was told so by my companion at the show (she's a Link fan who's well-acquainted with the story). There's no doubt that this talented company's production, which is adapted and directed by Bridgette Dunlap, is imaginative and evocative. But, for me, this whimsical tale of a population's collective speculation about the identity and nature of the title character lacks two essential ingredients: conflict and a protagonist. Without either, The Girl Detective struggles to form a center for the audience to hold on to.
The play contains a lot of disparate elements that never quite cohere into one main plot. First, there is The Girl Detective, a young sleuth who is something of a celebrity and always working on a high profile case. Her current job involves cracking a ring of tap-dancing bank robbers who never actually steal anything, they just leave stuff behind: stray pairs of socks, the missing crew of the Mary Celeste, and Amelia Earhart, among other things.
But, the case that really consumes our heroine is more personal. It involves her mother, who has been missing for some time, and there is speculation that she may be somewhere in the Underworld (as in Hades). Why or how she disappeared is unknown, but her mother's absence haunts The Girl Detective.
Then, there's Guy, The Girl Detective's next-door neighbor and former boyfriend. He stays perched in a tree with a pair of binoculars all day and night. Although he readily admits that he's afraid of humanity (which is why he's up in that tree), he observes life voraciously from his elevated vantage point—and, he spies on The Girl Detective.
The general public reveres The Girl Detective much like a superhero, but don't really know anything about her. None of them has ever met her. Thus, they spend a lot of time speculating who she is and what she's really like.
There are a lot of striking things about The Girl Detective, especially the images its evocative language conjures. Take, for instance, this description of the title character's legs: "so pale they looked like two slices of moonlight." And, the assumptions the other characters make about her ("She eats our dreams"; "She knows what we are and are not"); or, the fantasies they project on to her ("She is like the girl you want to marry.").
The only problem with all this conjecture is that none of it is ever proven, substantiated, or refuted. The Girl Detective steadfastly refuses to ever tell us anything concrete about its namesake, choosing instead to use her as a cipher for the world's obsession with the cult of personality (which, from what I understand, is kind of the point of the short story). This would be a palatable decision if the play positioned someone else as the protagonist (The Girl Detective is not a developed-enough character to hold that position herself), but it does not. The numerous members of the ensemble remain as mysterious as The Girl Detective herself, as does Guy, who gets as much attention from the script as anyone else. Why is he afraid of humanity? Who is The Girl Detective? Why does the rest of the world care so much about her? Alas, none of these questions is ever answered.
Without a clear-cut protagonist to hinge the proceedings on, The Girl Detective struggles to find a conflict. The heroine's search for her mother, Guy's obsession with The Girl Detective, and the tap-dancing bank robbers all vie for the opportunity, but none emerges victorious.
Dunlap's production is also exhaustingly busy. A dizzying parade of dancing, movement, and happenings—all done by a mostly anonymous cast of characters whom the audience never gets to emotionally connect with—exacerbates the difficulty of following the story (or stories).
So, while The Girl Detective may indeed be a faithful stage rendering of Link's story, I found it to be frustrating for all of the reasons that it may appeal to fans of the author and the story. Theatergoers unfamiliar with both may want to proceed with more caution.