Gender-neutral ‘Gossip Girl’

Dec. 2, 2011, 12:59 a.m.
Gender-neutral 'Gossip Girl'
MEHMET INONU/The Stanford Daily

Can girls have sex with girls? Do Emirati princesses eat fried dates on sticks? Why is it that only girls are called over-achievers? Blair or Serena? These are but few of the questions that may enter the mind when watching “The Winifred Bennett Academy For Not-So-Little Princesses,” the senior project of drama student Kristen Elizabeth Gura ‘12.


The play finds the world of The Winifred Bennett Academy–an elite boarding school bent on molding its all-girl student body into socialites with diamond validations–shaken by the arrival of its very first foreign exchange student, an Arabic princess. Protagonist Tiffany Soleste (Max Sosna-Spear ‘11), must sort out her own anxieties of youth, sexuality and success while dealing with all the pressing issues of womanhood like evading predators of the dance floor hunt, discerning what exactly “hooking up” really means, and just how one can gracefully confront the Other Woman.


Lyric McHenry ‘14 plays Princess Nadia with a broken English that brings a sense of foreign playfulness to the kindergarten wisdom of the play that any Stanford student can relate to. Adding to the competition between Tiffany and Nadia, a rebellious debutante Winny (Bronwyn Reed ‘12) and the sensuous Southern Belle (Xandra Clark ‘12) engage in a confusing liaison that becomes a love triangle, then square, then pentagon, in a hilarious debacle of blissful ignorance and painful maturation all too familiar in the lives of most young women.


Gura staged the reading with a tongue-in-cheek nod to her own boarding school experience (she attended Phillips Exeter Academy), with precious matching uniforms and sparkling pink accents. Her fresh look into the comedic culture of estrogen-heavy breeding zones comes together with the innovative structure in a happy marriage of laughter and resonant meaning.


“Everything about [Tiffany] is so true and honest–even through this convoluted lens, she struggles…I think we all have anxieties about being the best at the things we think we’re the best at,” said Sosna-Spear ‘11, the male actor cast as the female protagonist.


Though Sosna-Spear dons the garb and make-up of a lady, Gura made the decision to stray from the “over-the-top drag” look and instead opt for a post-gender portrayal that focused on talent.


“I wanted to play it with a gender-blind casting decision. To be completely honest, it wasn’t really a deep philosophical reason for making Tiffany Soleste a man [played by Max], it was basically…a great actor expressed interest in playing a girl and I have an idea for a play–let’s put it together,’” Gura said.


“I learned at a really young age what was expected…in a professional working environment, and that’s something I have tried really hard to bring to rehearsals and performances here [at Stanford] …People don’t realize it’s a lot like a varsity athlete, our time commitment,” Reed said, who has performed in professional productions since age eight.


She thinks “Winifred Bennett” has come together harmoniously.


“I don’t think we could get a better group than the one we have because Kristen wrote it with us in mind…I do think [Stanford] is sort of the ideal venue for it, it being her senior project and us being all so close together,” Reed said.


Perhaps the most powerful adages and laughs come from Sosna-Spear’s portrayal of the pathologically proper young lady as compared to McHenry’s inquisitive intruder, showing the culture clash of the American princess and the actual princess.


“The princess element was added last. My favorite director in the whole world, Andy Fickman, has called me ‘Princess’ since I started interning for him…I kind of decided, a la his inspiration one day, ‘I should make this princess themed,”’ Gura said.


Andy Fickman (“She’s the Man,” “The Game Plan”) spoke last year as a guest lecture and has mentored Gura for several years.


“I pay homage to Andy in Act 2, Scene 4.5 titled ‘She’s the Man’…He has been in my career path. He’s been a huge influence and really positive; I think you always need that one person who almost believes in you more than you believe in yourself,” Gura said.


Gura’s passion and talent for the stage seep off the page and into the laughter that will surely permeate Nitery this weekend.


“It’s going to be something that every girl on this campus can relate to…I think there’s literally something for everyone.”


And if that’s not enough to get an audience in the seats, Gura goads, “Girls will be making out!”


“The Winifred Bennett Academy For Not-So-Little-Princesses” runs Dec. 1-3 at 7 p.m. each night in the Nitery.

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