Jalayna Walton, Mercedes Padro, and Christina Arden in Real Girls Can't Win!If I were a college (or even high school) student of the female sex, I might find playwright Merri Biechler's Real Girls Can't Win! poignant and, if not life-changing, at least food for thought. I'm not, though, so while I appreciated Augustana College's cute presentation of the piece, I found the play itself to be rather pretentious, and annoyingly preachy.

Directed here by Scott R. Irelan, the multimedia presentation focuses on the question of what it is to be a woman. In the show, there are the "real girls" - young women with lofty goals and a lack of concern about what anyone else thinks of them, at least in terms of looks. There are also the "copy girls," who dress to impress and, in Biechler's stage world, are working to reclaim the term "slut" as a word of empowerment. Biechler sets these two factions against each other in a college contest for Miss Freshman B Dorm.

While not at the quality standard, in either material or execution, that I'm used to seeing on the Potter Hall stage, there are some notable things about Augustana's production. As the copy girl Dakota, Jo Vasquez plays the part with the appropriate valley girl-esque attitude and vocal inflections. On the surface, her Dakota is a one-note caricature, but there are hints of fairly strong acting talent apparent when she's allowed to show her character's insecurities and truer nature. In those moments, Vasquez drops the vapid act and effectively exudes sadness and carries it in her voice.

Portraying her "slut" sponsor/coach Montana, Jessica Meyer shows similar signs of real acting ability. She, too, is a single-layered caricature when playing the condescending snob, but shades her part with subtle suggestions of a soft heart, mostly through the use of friendlier vocal tones.

Mercedes Padr, Christina Arden, and Jalayna Walton in Real Girls Can't Win!Christina Arden leads the real girls' brigade into the dorm election as Katie, a freshman who, as a Political Science major, believes people should be "uniters" and find the common good in everybody. She's also an idealist who, hypocritically, hates copy girls for being "dividers" and always winning everything, and Arden does a fine job of playing the impassioned Plain Jane, though the part could have used more nuance in order to punctuate the point of the role. The character becomes the person she hates, a "divider," through the course of the campaign, and while that's obvious in her words, Arden could make it clearer in her portrayal. (Katie's gradual realization that Dakota is a deeper person, with "real girl" thoughts and feelings, could also be more clearly expressed.) Jalayna Walton, too, could use more shading in her characterization of Katie's best friend; the actress' deliveries are somewhat monotone, but at least earnest and consistent.

Mercedes Padro's portrayal of Sue, however, seems just right. As the student who wants to major in Home Economics so she can be a better wife, Padro plays the role as endearingly sweet and unjaded. Oftentimes Katie's voice of reason, Padro's Sue is flat-out adorable, especially in the cute way she gets worked up and delivers some of the play's funniest lines.

Regarding Real Girls Can't Win!'s technical aspects, set, sound, video and projection designer Adam Parboosingh's work - inspired by the pop-art works of Roy Lichtenstein - is brilliant. The multi-tiered set, made up of overlapping circles, is painted in colors and comic-book-style dots similarly favored by Lichtenstein, and Parboosingh also forsakes scenic flats in favor of several rectangular projection screens of various sizes floating at the back of the stage. On these, Parboosingh projects the background for each setting, be it the cafeteria or the dorm lounge - or even a clever, Youtube-style video blog (created by video graphics designer Johnny Mago) called MyFace.

However, I can't help but think of Parboosingh's work as the stage embodiment of Biechler's "copy girl" concept; the design is beautiful to behold, but masks a lack of substance in the script. Although mildly charming, with amusing jokes through much of the play, Real Girls Can't Win! descends into predictable, over-simplified moral lessons, presented with what seems a naïve belief that it's so poignantly written that it will change the world.


For tickets and information, call (309)794-7306.

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