- Written by Christine Quintana
- Directed by Stephen Colella
- Starring Christopher Allen, Rachel Mutombo, Caroline Toal
- At Young People’s Theatre in Toronto until May 11
Watching the beginning sequence of Christine Quintana’s Selfie, which opened at Young People’s Theatre on Thursday in Toronto, I found my mind drifting to a recent news story. I thought of the young Quebecois woman currently in an Australian jail – the one who smuggled 200-odd pounds of cocaine onto a cruise ship to get some choice selfies in exotic locales.
It’s a story with the ring of a medieval morality play reimagined for the 21st century. As Selfie’s three teenage characters gave the audience tours of each other’s Instagram accounts – as though these photos offered authoritative narratives of their lives – I thought of the widespread fever to “share.” Quintana is clearly also interested in the current compulsion to record and publicize our private lives. But the surprise of Selfie is that it isn’t set on interrogating any moral vacuum at the root of the Instagram trend. Quintana is using social media as a metaphor for the space between the real and the perceived, and how this becomes incredibly complicated in the realm of sex and consent.
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The play centres on what happens at a back-to-school party hosted by Lily (Caroline Toal) and her brother Chris (Christopher Allen). Lily posts an invitation on Instagram, and while she claims that half of her followers are “middle-aged creeps I don’t know,” it’s no surprise when everyone at school shows up. The teens get very drunk, and the precocious Lily encourages her best friend Emma (Rachel Mutombo) to tell Chris how she feels about him. Emma heeds her advice, and we’re given a lovely, fumbling scene in which Emma and Chris try to be open with each other and act on their mutual attraction.
What seems to be a charming and clumsy story of two teenagers hooking up at a party –an unfiltered moment in world saturated with slick curation – slowly becomes something else. This isn’t because of any mounting tension or twist in the plot. It’s because there’s no single objective account of what happened when Emma and Chris went off into another room, and no one is quite sure how or what they’re entitled to feel. Once hangovers have run their course, Lily assumes that Emma is acting strangely because she’s worried about birth control. As the more experienced friend, she encourages Emma to see her doctor. Meanwhile, Chris is enjoying the thrill of requited romance and can’t understand why Emma isn’t returning his texts.
Emma doesn’t understand it either – and this is an example of the play at its best, the way it shows teenagers grappling, in the moment, with their consciences, their desires and their rights. I won’t go into more detail with the plot, but Quintana’s temerity for making very polemical issues appear equivocal and challenging is a sincere compliment to her teenage viewers.
Her work is bolstered by good performances. Allen is incredibly likable as the popular, goofy athlete who also has sensitivity and depth. Mutombo is luminous in a monologue about her trip to Paris and how a selfie can redefine the experience of an event. While Toal might have the most lines, her character feels the most underwritten. She’s gregarious and high-energy as the Instagram-obsessed cool girl, but I wish her precociousness had translated into more knowledge and weight.
Director Stephen Colella is great at making things alternately awkward and intense. I loved the perfectly true-to-life costumes – the characters looked plucked straight from a Toronto street – but a little more aesthetic imagination could have gone into the staging and set. The uninspired risers and projections referenced high-school in a different way.
This is a piece of theatre that is sure to provoke good conversations among its young viewers. I saw a school matinee, and I balked at some of the things the kids sitting near me “whispered” to each other. At the final tally, it is a morality play; Selfie has a right and a wrong, which will limit its appeal to adult theatregoers. But if you can tag along with a teenager, you’ll find lots of difficult material to unpack.
Selfie continues at YPT until May 11