Arts and Entertainment | Theater

From Greenpoint to the frontier: Under St. Marks debuts ‘Women’

A theatrical adaptation of “Girls” is transplanting Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna into new—yet not unfamiliar—territory: the 19th century. 

With “Women,” which mashes up Lena Dunham’s HBO show and Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women,” author and playwright Chiara Atik takes the quirks and mannerisms of Dunham’s characters and presents them in period dress. Using anachronistic dialogue, “Women” explores, through the eyes of Alcott’s March sisters, why it is so difficult to be a girl in the 1860s. 

Atik’s project began last fall at the Flea Theater in TriBeCa as an entry in the theater’s #serials@theflea series, a competition in which the Flea invites five writers to create 10-minute episodic plays. Audience members’ votes determine which shows get cut and which ones earn another episode. 

“I was asked to write for Flea Serials, and ‘Little Women’ as source material was something that I’ve been using and playing out for a while in my other work in a much less serious manner,” Atik said. “I thought that this would be a good way to explore the characters in a new light, have more fun with it. For a while, I thought that the four characters in ‘Little Women’ were analogous to the characters in ‘Girls.’”

Not only did Atik enter the Flea competition with an inspired concept, but she also entered with a close friend as her collaborator. Atik met the director of “Women,” Stephanie Ward, when they were in middle school. In high school, she and Ward were both involved in community theater, and they teamed up again in college.

“I went to college for playwriting, and Stephanie was also taking theater,” Atik said. “She produced one of the very first readings I’ve ever had of a play. So we have this long history of working together in a preprofessional way.” 

Ward said that she and Atik were nervous about working on “Women” together because they “had been supporting each other’s work for so long but never actually collaborated.” Before deciding to work together, Ward said that she and Atik “had a very ‘Girls’-esque panic moment.”

For Atik and Ward, collaborating at the Flea ultimately paid off. In addition to winning first place in the competition, many of the theater’s resident actors stayed with them when Atik’s revised, expanded version of “Women” made the transition to its current home at Under St. Marks in the East Village. 

“It’s just been very rewarding working with them and collaborating and finding the moments of what the joke is and what the objective of each character is in the scene,” Ward said of the actors. “The piece wouldn’t be what it is without these actors that have been with us the whole time.”

Layla Khoshnoudi, who plays Jo March, said that when Atik developed the extended version of the show, she encouraged the actors to dig deeper into their character studies. At the Flea, there was less of a focus on imitation and impersonation.

“It’s interesting because now, when I look at my character, I can definitely see that she’s a mix of Jo from ‘Little Women’ and Hannah from ‘Girls,’” Khoshnoudi said. “I think that what’s so fascinating about this concept is that a pretty full character comes out of the hybrid of those two in a way that’s very seamless and natural.”

In addition to blending Dunham’s and Alcott’s characters in their performances, the actors of “Women” draw on their own interests and experiences.

“I’ve always been obsessed with 19th-century novels about marriage, and luckily I get to play the character in the play who gets married early on,” Abby Rosebrock, who plays Meg March, said. “I’ve done a lot of thinking about marriage plots and romance novels in 19th-century thinking. I sort of get to bring all that reading and experience of thinking to bear on the character of Meg, and that’s been a complete joy.” 

Although Atik has not heard from HBO directly about “Women,” she said that she has received feedback from fans of the show. 

“We would obviously be thrilled if someone directly related to ‘Girls’ were to come,” she said. “We did an NYMag.com Vulture piece on the similarities between Hannah Horvath and Jo March, and Lena Dunham tweeted about it, and HBOGirls retweeted it. So they definitely have given their approval of the concept of ‘Little Women’ as being similar to ‘Girls,’ so that’s been really exciting for us.”

“Women” runs through Feb. 15 at Under St. Marks (94 St. Mark’s Pl.). Tickets are $15.

zoe.miller@columbiaspectator.com | @Zoe_M_Miller

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