Lost Girls: Paying debts to monstrous mothers, murdered bluestockings, and Sallie Mae

Before the performance began on the opening night of Lost Girls, Catherine Blake Smith, the Annex Theater’s artistic director, came on stage to assert that this play would be unapologetically queer and feminist, in keeping with the Annex’s dedication to representing the underrepresented on its stage. If this is the goal of the play, it generally succeeds. In the casting, dialogue, staging, and themes, feminism and queerness are a given, and the play is refreshingly uninterested in explaining these ideas to some imagined ‘general’ audience. The only characters here are women, and all the relationships—romantic, sexual, competitive, antagonistic, affectionate—are between women, without men as a reference point for their interactions.

In brief, the plot features five recent college graduates—Rosa, Pat, Misti, Donny, and Nashua—employed as counselors at an all-girls summer camp, a job they try to embrace as a final time of unreality before they face the looming financial uncertainties and possible disappointments of their post-college lives. But strange noises in the woods, disappearing campers, a ghost story about the murder of educated women (or perhaps the murder of child-sacrificing witches), a monstrous maternal lake monster, and the unsettling presence of a sixth character, the seemingly-teenage Pat, interfere with their attempts to treat Camp ExploreQuest as a last irresponsible hurrah.

The comedy is the best part of the production, and the area where the feminist-and-queer assertion comes across most clearly. When the women flirt, fight, or gripe about their low-paying jobs and frightening student loans, the dialogue and humor is firmly grounded in queer identities and desires and weary awareness of the patriarchal, racist, and classist structures they’re up against. The play’s comedy remains consistently entertaining when it veers from biting comments into over-the-top absurdity. A ritual involving candles, blood, and an acapella rendition of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” is particularly inspired, and may be the highlight of the whole show.

The play establishes its world quickly and effectively. Before any characters enter, the audience is faced with ExploreQuest’s unsubtly vaginal camp emblem. Although the sign is removed before the action begins, the rest of the play recalls that emblem through its complete focus on females—the relationships between women and the girls in their care, the obligations that Nashua and Pat feel to the ghosts, and the threatening presence of the lake monster, a wet, dark, murderous unknown that occasionally spits children back out into the world. The world of the play is comfortable in its female-ness, and confident enough in its audience that it doesn’t feel the need to over-explain itself. It also seems confident in the risk that it takes in staying focused on a small sampling of women.

Lost Girls allows the diversity of its characters to exist on stage without devolving into a reliance on stereotypes; the women and their interactions seem commonplace and individualized, even though they could have easily have veered into the territory of horror tropes (The Virgin, The Black Friend, The Final Girl, etc.).  Jordi Montes’s Donny stands out; she keeps exposition engaging, even though she has the thankless task of explaining the contents of a mysterious diary related to the ghost story multiple times, and she manages to stay funny and charismatic even as she becomes the increasingly isolated voice of reason. Alysha Curry as Rosa makes the most of her few lines with a consistently hilarious delivery, and she sells her arc from virginal sweetheart to very chill Bacchae in spite of her relatively small speaking part.

The horror, however, was a bit less successful, both as a basic plot device and in maintaining the play’s queer-feminist ideals. In part, the difficulty stems from an unnecessarily complex mythology. By relying on both the ghosts of the murdered women and the lake monster, who may be working together or may be at odds, the creepiness gets muddled with distracting logistical questions. Why did Nashua return to ExploreQuest? There are hints that she’s driven by a feeling of obligation to the murdered women, but this idea is left dangling, resulting in a flat characterization. Who is possessing/influencing the counselors, the lake monster or the ghosts? Pat suggests that the monster influences personalities, but Misti claims that they’re trapped in the roles of the camp founders, re-enacting the original murders. And who’s doing the killing? Some ambiguity and mystery is fine, but it should feel purposeful, not cluttered. When Misti gives an impassioned speech about wanting to deserve her impending death, it would be more effective as a protest against the sacrificial martyr role forced upon women if it didn’t simultaneously serve as exposition for what’s going on in the first place.

The mythology also raises questions that undermine the play’s feminist claims. Although the horror attempts to entrench itself in feminist concepts, there are too many ideas for any of them to fully develop. Why, for example, are the ghosts of radical feminists killing other women? What does the maternal lake monster have to do with those ghosts? The play would benefit from streamlining its horror, so that a single concept could have more payoff. Is this a ghost story about the way powerful women are perceived as threatening? Does it want to explore the dread of realizing that education may not save women after all? Is it a story about the mother-monster who gives lives and takes them? Is it about the way women are expected to take on the role of caregivers, and the resentments that can cause? Any one of these ideas could be the basis of a good horror story; all together, they’re less than the sum of their parts. The genre conventions of horror also stymie part of the play’s queer-feminist battle cry: the witch-women are still inexplicably murderous, teenage girls are still ignored and dismissed (even by women), and sex is still a punishable offence. However, there are a few genuinely frightening and interesting beats: Misti’s fury at the teenage girls who won’t listen to her begins as a joke, and then finds a great sweet spot between laughter and fear when, perhaps sleepwalking, perhaps possessed, she smothers a teddy bear. Likewise, her terror that she’s somehow killed a camper named Susan by verbalizing her wish for Susan’s death could help create an atmosphere where witchcraft and supernatural influence seem like real possibilities, rather than threats the characters never quite believe.

Although aspects of the script and production could still use some editing, Lost Girls is an entertaining play with a confident perspective. Inconsistencies between humor and horror could be solved through embracing campy excess opportunities of horror, or through trimming down the ghost story. In spite of the plot’s confusions and contradictions, Lost Girls’ whole-hearted embrace of its feminist, queer energy brings a needed jolt to the Seattle theater scene. Let’s hope that the Annex’s dedication to representing the underrepresented can push Seattle theater toward more conscious, thoughtful productions.

October 28 – November 19, 2016

  • Written by: Courtney Meaker
  • Directed by: Kaytlin McIntyre
  • Produced by: Annex Theatre
  • Review Lead: Emily George | Review Team: Laura Chrisman, Steph Hankinson, Andrea Iaroc