The Invisible Girl
- Written by Michele Riml
- Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
- Starring Amy Lee
- At Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People in Toronto
The Invisible Girl, Vancouver-based playwright Michele Riml's solo play for young audiences, is like a preachy Mean Girls for the preteen set.
Fifth grader Ali (Amy Lee) belongs to a fashion-obsessed, cool-girl clique called The Ultimates. To them, the rest of their classmates are The Invisibles - so beneath their social circle that they see right through them.
Ali's less popular classmates only begin to register for her when she hears a shy diabetic cruelly dubbed Fat Dolores sing one day. Smitten by her voice, Ali nominates Dolores for the big solo in music class - and immediately comes to regret her fleeting act of kindness.
The nomination is viewed as treason by the other Ultimates. Leader Cali, who wanted the solo for herself, threatens to de-friend Ali and, worse, un-lend her the blue sweater she was going to wear at an upcoming public appearance of singer and noted blue lover Justin Bieber. The more Ali gets to know Dolores through a class assignment, however, the more difficult it becomes for her to rescind the nomination.
In Nina Lee Aquino's production, cleverly designed by Camellia Koo, the entire play takes place in Ali's giant, cluttered closet. She moves clothes along the rack to note the passage of time and half-wears outfits or hangs them on the door to represent the other characters.
Invisibility is the guiding metaphor for Riml to somewhat moralistically explore issues like social bullying, body image and class. Even as Ali comes to see the Invisibles, she wonder if the world might not be better if everyone was invisible - and therefore judged by what they say and do rather than what they look like or are wearing. (Pictures of female pop singers and stars today flash above her during this realization.)
But much as I may share the production's bafflement at the enduring celebrity of the Olson twins, The Invisible Girl's merit-based philosophy has its own problems - and the play almost seems to encourage reverse bullying. While Dolores is slowly humanized, the popular Ultimates become more two-dimensional. We learn it's wrong to write off Dolores because of her weight, but making fun of Ultimate Jessie for being dumb seems to be fair game. Books, opera and sports are approved interests in the play, but passion for fashion is treated with disdain.
As Ali, Amy Lee gives an energetic, roll-around-on-the stage performance that younger audience members will appreciate. Even as she keeps it clowny and light, however, she also effectively communicates emotions, like that uniquely soul-crushing feeling that comes from having your beloved glow-in-the-dark lunchbox mocked by your friends.
Ultimately, however, solo theatre is a fundamentally flawed medium for this particular story. Ali's journey is toward empathy, but here she proves herself able to put herself in other people's shoes - and, literally, their clothing - right from the start.
There are also some problematic updates to Riml's 2004 script. (Bieber's not one of them - his projected face garnered the biggest reaction of the afternoon, a tidal wave of female screams with an undertow of male boos.) Ali's use of Twitter, for instance, is wrong on all counts: it's a unlikely choice of social network for the preteen demographic, plus she uses it nonsensically. The creative team didn't get the jargon right, either, as in Ali's line: "Life would be a lot easier if it were deletable like a Twitter." (Only tweets are erasable; sadly, Twitter appears to be ineradicable.)
Riml's text rings false elsewhere as well. She often goes for the clever quip rather than an age-appropriate one, as with Ali's amusing nickname for her mom: My Mother of the Perpetual Frown.
There is nonetheless enjoyment to be found in the writing, as in Ali's response to her mother's chastisement for leaving the house wearing lipstick: "Mom, it's lip gloss! It's more like lunch than lipstick." Ironically, Riml's play would be better without the gloss, too.
The Invisible Girl runs until Oct. 23.