Amanda Morris and Bradley Hatch in Form of a Girl Unknown
Amali Wilson (Amanda Morris) announces herself as “12 and three-quarters years old” in Form of a Girl Unknown
—and that’s the kind of wonderful shorthand that allows playwright Charly Evon Simpson to let us know the precarious border between childhood and adulthood where Amali stands. Almost a teenager, and having just begun her menstrual cycle, Amali is on the cusp of leaving childish things behind, yet she’s still in that place where she thinks of her age in fractions of years. While her best friend Finn (Bradley Hatch) makes his entrance playfully bouncing on a huge rubber ball, Amali is contemplating matters of life and death. It’s hard knowing at that age which side of that border is the one where you belong.
Form of a Girl Unknown
is in one sense a fairy tale, or at minimum a story like Sondheim’s Into the Woods
that is about
the cultural role of fairy tales. Left largely to her own devices while her hard-working single mother (Latoya Cameron) and pregnant 19-year-old sister (Aalliyah Ann) deal with their own issues, Amali finds herself fascinated with the story of a brother and sister who died in the nearby woods, and what the girl was feeling and thinking as she died. The remarkable set, designed by Shoko Kambara, initially resembles a stand of bamboo, opening up to reveal various set pieces, before ultimately exploding into the recesses of a forest. Simpson’s text combines the issues Amali is wrestling with in her own real life—sexuality, friendships, dark moods, spirituality—with her intense curiosity about this one tragic event, making that Hansel-and-Gretel stand-in narrative into a representation of the way grim fairy tales are used as allegories, representing the real-world dangers children will ultimately need to confront, whether they’re ready for them or not.
At the center of it all is Amali herself, a brilliantly written character brought to frisky, playful life by Morris. As sharp as her line readings are, it’s the physicality she brings to the performance that truly elevates it—a sense of still trying out the limits of a gangly new body, mixed with the un-self-conscious big gestures of a kid. While the adults around her worry that the things she’s thinking about portend some kind of violence, either toward others or toward herself, Morris finds the perfectly rational (and often hilarious) voice of someone who becomes a creature of almost pure curiosity.
So many classic coming-of-age stories are shot through with darkness, because at its core, coming-of-age is about wrestling with the understanding that the world is full of frightening, unknowable things. Form of a Girl Unknown
sends its fascinating protagonist into the woods, literally and metaphorically, because the bravest thing anyone can do is facing fears on their own terms.