Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association; photos by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom
There are fine plays set in hair salons. Steel Magnolias comes to mind immediately. And it is certainly possible to write an excellent salon show that combines that iconic location with absurdity and meta-theatre. But, I ashear you, Akvavit Theatre’s Bad Girls: The Stylists is not that play. I didn’t need to mullet over to know that this play, which does feature a fine cast of enthusiastic young performers who give their all, is a pretty hairy experience.
The bald facts:
Three young women (Trine, played by Madelyn Loehr; Jorun, played by Jennifer Cheung; and Mette, played by Kristin Franklin) run a hair salon that is bleeding cash due to a sudden proliferation of other salons in the area. Enter Boogie (Kim Boler), a domineering immigrant from Sarajevo married to the bigwig owner of an Italian restaurant. Boogie (who claims to be a great stylist but anyone who chooses someone else will have had a close shave with a bad hair day) decides to use the failing salon as an opportunity to launder some of her husband’s ill-gotten cash and starts offering to “help” financially, doing such things as paying cash for all of the salon’s beauty products. Gradually, she takes control of the place.
Meanwhile, we see a plethora of odd and unusual patrons (played by the four actors in various wigs, joined by Jennifer Adams) come and go at the salon. There is the terrified bride who fears her wedding night because she is too closed up “down there” (Franklin, having a ton of fun); the crazy lady who is always lurking around taking notes (Adams); the conservative TV personality whose vile on-air comments leave her open for attack (Boler); the young woman who wants all of her hair shaved off because she’s about to undergo chemo (Cheung); the scissors salesman (Adams again) and a host of others. Finally, there is a highly meta ending that attempts to make some kind of logical sense out of it all but instead is just a comb-over, pasted on at the end in such a bizarre way that most of the audience the night I went (a very responsive audience, it must be acknowledged, though many of them clearly knew the actors) were left buzzing about their confusion.
All of this takes place in a well-staged and nicely lit salon created by scenic designer Chad Eric Bergman and lighting designer David Goodman-Edberg. Lily Walls’ costumes and Keith Ryan’s wigs (which are prominently located to the side of the set and openly used for character and/or hair changes, sometimes even right on stage) are wonderful and help define those many characters, several of whom are also defined by accents that range from excellent to OK.
But I mustache a question:
Are fun and enjoyable characterizations presented by eager and talented actors enough when the script makes you want to curl up and dye? Norwegian playwright Astrid Saalbach (translated by Michael Evans) wants the play to be a comment on what we owe each other, what it means to be female, and all of the various ways in which we fail. Ultimately, it succeeds only in the latter, by showing one of them.
Despite everyone’s excellent contributions, I wanted it over ten minutes in and it never got any better, just weirder. Unlike my compatriots in the audience, I did “get” the ending, but it seemed just another bit of tacked-on absurdity rather than an integral part of what was going on. To cut a long story short (and this parting is such sweet sorrow), the players are good, but the play is really dreadful. Unless you too know those involved, see something else.
Bad Girls: The Stylists is an Akvavit Theatre production now playing at the Stradog Theatre, 1082 W Berenice Ave in Chicago, until April 14. Performance times vary; check the website . Tickets are available from Akvavit Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.