“Girlhood” at the Minnesota Fringe Festival warps time and wins your heart

“Girlhood” at the Minnesota Fringe Festival warps time and wins your heart

I’ve never been very good at keeping journals. I’ve only done it twice in my life. First, at around age five, I filled a green graph-paper notebook with scrawled disclosures like “I have a confession to make…I LOVE GIRLS!!!” Then, many years later after a tough breakup, I filled a Moleskine with things my friends were sick of hearing me talk about. Those diaries are now, respectively, lost and destroyed—traded for blogging, which has become for me, like much of the rest of the world, an ongoing public diary.

Hailey Colwell’s youthful diary has remained private—until now. Recently rediscovered, it became the basis of the charming and poignant new play Girlhood, directed by Joe Allen and credited to playwrights Hailey Colwell (age 11) and Hailey Colwell (age 21). In the play, a character inspired by the playwright(s) is portrayed by three different actresses at age 11 (Chloe Stromberg), 12-15 (Michaela Stromberg), and 18-21 (Corrine Nugent).

All the dialogue of the younger girls is drawn verbatim from the journal Colwell kept from ages 11-15; it’s interspersed with scenes portraying the character during her college years, finding her way as a writer (“I write about music on a freelance basis!” she proudly proclaims) as well as through evolving friendships and romantic relationships.

The material from the journal is so entertaining that at first it seems distracting for that part of the show to be interrupted by episodes involving the older character, but by the show’s conclusion, when all three of the character’s incarnations are sharing the stage together, the time-hop structure has led Girlhood into thematic and emotional territory that makes it much more than a “Hollaback Girl” nostalgia trip.

Adding yet another level to the show is the fact that Colwell’s childhood friend Aidan Gallivan, who appears onstage as herself, produced this play and collaborates with Colwell as a member of Theatre Corrobora—which produced last year’s wonderful Fig. It was through their earlier Fringe show, The Critic and the Concubine, that I was first introduced to Colwell and Gallivan; I later worked with Colwell at The Current, where I’m a digital producer, when she wrote for our Local Current blog about artists ranging from the Trashmen to First Aid Kit.

It’s clear from Girlhood that Colwell has been a confident writer for far longer than I’ve known her, but this script reaches for a new level of formal ambition as well as new depths of feeling, and it succeeds brilliantly. Though the production is gratifyingly unassuming—the actors race around the stage rambunctiously, using a flexible set of plastic crates to build different settings—the show’s casual ambience belies the script’s sophisticated construction. This is a show with both heart and brains.

Girlhood took me back to my own boyhood. Not so much to my abortive attempt at journaling, but to the way that, after seeing a movie or reading a book I loved, I’d go out to our back patio and bounce a rubber ball, essentially to occupy my body while my mind raced, imagining new adventures and exciting stories. Like a good book, when Girlhood ends you’re left with both a satisfying sense of closure and an eagerness to find out what happens next.

Jay Gabler