Play shows a woman’s dream world beyond Catholic confines

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Elissa Beth Stebbins, Arisa Bega, Carlye Pollack and Abigail Edber co-star in ‘What Every Girl Should Know,’ a play about girls who dream of sexual freedom in their oppressive world.

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It is 1914. With the Comstock Act in full effect, it is illegal in the United States to create and distribute written materials deemed “obscene” by those in charge — including any information or items pertaining to women’s sexuality and health. In this world where women are given no rights to their own bodies, four teenage girls in a Catholic reformatory — Anne, Theresa, Lucy and newcomer Joan — create imaginary worlds of romance and adventure within the four walls of their room where they are free to travel the world, be whomever they choose, love whomever they desire and kill all who get in their way.

Written by up-and-coming playwright Monica Byrne, “What Every Girl Should Know” had its world premiere in Durham, N.C., just last year and recently finished a run at the New York International Fringe Festival.

Last Saturday, the play opened at Berkeley’s own Impact Theatre, the theater nestled beneath the floors of La Val’s Pizza. Despite its small size, Impact Theatre always stages impressive performances. In the comfort and intimacy of this one-of-a-kind venue and under the creative direction of Tracy Ward, the story sparks to life not only on the stage but also through the entirety of the theater.

The title of the work is taken from a pamphlet written by famed birth-control activist and feminist reformer Margaret Sanger. When the rebellious Joan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) moves into the quad of the Catholic reformatory St. Mary’s, she is immediately met with hostility from the three other girls already residing in the room — the Protestant-hating Anne (Abigail Edber), the naive, Satan-fearing Lucy (Arisa Bega) and the bubbly Theresa (Carlye Pollack).

After a game of truth-or-dare, they begin to warm up to one another as Joan reveals the reason she was sent to the reformatory. Bringing with her numerous birth-control contraband and feminist pamphlets, she exposes the three girls to the mind of Margaret Sanger and a world where women are given rights.

The four make a saint of the feminist activist — they perform ritualistic sacrifices by creating a fictional realm through storytelling within the confines of their dormitory, a realm in whhich they are given sexual freedom and able to bring harm to the men who hurt them in the past.

As the play progresses, we learn the stories of each girl’s expulsion from society, and the flaws of the punitive system are revealed when the fictional world collides with real life. This is a coming-of-age story of four teenage girls on the cusp of womanhood, learning about both themselves and a sad, oppressive reality.

Bega, Edber, Pollack and Stebbins work together fantastically. The acting is so well-balanced that not one character outshines another, each adding a slightly different tone to the story unraveling onstage.

Combining elements of dance under the modern choreography of Erika Chong Shuch, the characters are able to express themselves with their bodies in ways that echo the message of the production.

While certain parts of the play don’t flow as fluidly as the rest and seem somewhat unnecessary, such as when the characters get repeatedly possessed by Margaret Sanger’s spirit, the underlying message and purpose remains intact and obvious from beginning to end. As best described by Stebbins’ Joan, “the woman’s body is a carcass.”

In many ways, the plot of “What Every Girl Should Know” is still incredibly relevant today. Women’s liberties are still being tampered with by men around the globe — whether they be abortion rights, fashion choices or sexual freedom. Byrne’s script, set in a time period so restrictive and unjust, really allows for audience members to see how tragedies can strike when the most basic human rights are taken away.