Is it a club for pre-teen equine aficionados or an apocalyptic death cult? You decide in Jenny Rachel Weiner's twisted new play.
When you step into the cell theatre you are instantly transported to a 12-year-old girl's bedroom in an affluent Florida suburb. Blue ribbons for equestrianism mingle among pillows embroidered with inspirational quotes. Horse photos accented by glittery puff paint decorate a small vanity. This is the lair of Ashleigh (Olivia Macklin), president of the Lady Jean Ladies, a club for adolescent horse enthusiasts. Jenny Rachel Weiner's Horse Girls (now making its New York debut in earnest after a workshop at last year's ANTFest) gives us a hilarious and terrifying peek inside one of these secret meetings.
Be warned: This is not the special episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic that its outward appearance might suggest. In Weiner's world, friendship may be magic, but it's the kind one used to reanimate the dead and summon Lucifer. Beneath this play's pink-and-white veneer bubbles a dark sensibility that, in its examination of adolescent gal pals, is far more Heathers than Mean Girls.
If Ashleigh is the queen bee, Tiffany (Angeliea Stark) is second in command and the one serious threat to Ashleigh's primacy. She's the only other girl who owns her horse; the rest ride on a whole stable owned by Ashleigh's family. These equestrian hangers-on include Tiffany's younger sister Robin (Maddie Sykes) and Margaret (Kaley Ronayne), the brace-faced misfit Ashleigh suspects is a lesbian. There's also early-bloomer Camille (Anna Baryshnikov), who has brought along her visiting Manhattanite cousin Trish (Eleanor Condo), much to Ashleigh's chagrin. As president, Ashleigh is all about harsh enforcement of the rules.
The meeting is thrown into chaos when club member Brandi (Katie Lawson) arrives late with shocking news: Some men in suits are planning to demolish the stable and sell the horses for meat. The girls shriek in horror, thrashing about to a metal cover of Katy Perry's "Dark Horse."
Weiner's play gallops along the fine line between the ridiculous and (tragically) plausible, which is the source of its immense humor. No one doubts the earnest commitment of these pre-teen characters to their hobby. Still, some of the more outlandish theatrical conceits throw us firmly into the realm of the ludicrous: At one point, the girls perform a pseudo-religious dance in front of a framed photo of dressage demi-goddess Ann Romney, beseeching her help in this crisis. Director Sarah Krohn leans into this insanity with carefully choreographed precision. The production may be ridiculous, but it never feels messy or inaccessible.
As the dead-eyed New Yorker, Condo plays the most relatable figure on stage, the straight woman to these rich adolescent clowns. As top banana, Macklin carries the play with a committed intensity that feels authentic, as if she's just stepped out of a private middle school. She's like Charles Manson in kneehigh socks and a French braid. Equally unswerving in her performance, Ronayne plays her Squeaky Fromme, a true believer to the bitter end.
And oh, what a bitter end it is. (I won't say more; you need to see for yourself.) While you may not walk away from Horse Girls with any life-changing revelations about the children of the American bourgeoisie and the strange societies they form around extracurricular activities, you will enjoy more than a few laughs. You may also have to lift your jaw off the floor a few times. Weiner is a promising playwright with a talent for drawing humor and horror from seemingly mundane subjects. I can't wait to see what she accomplishes with an...errr...meatier one.