It’s 1985. And Janice, a sweatband sporting, legwarmer wearing, can’t-keep-her-hands-still-for-a-moment archetype of 1980s teendom is losing it.
All she wants to do is breeze through her usual babysitting gig, gossip dizzily on the phone about the misfortunes of her sister’s best friend’s boyfriend’s cousin, eat CheeZees and tune into the latest sexual shenanigans on Dynasty.
Except that she keeps receiving cryptic phone calls from, and answering the doorbell to, 1950s entertainment icons, a high-pitched Beaver Cleaver included. In fact, the front lawn of her employer’s home is peopled with a virtual who’s who of that decade’s celebrity A-list: Lucille Ball, Fabian, Dinah Shore, Doris Day, Pat Boone and Mr Ed, the talking horse. Of course.
Enter poised, diction-perfect Nancy Prew, ace teen detective straight out of her circa 1950s mystery-solving comfort zone of hidden staircases, dancing puppets and ringmaster’s secrets, to the rescue.
After exchanging barbed, and not-so-barbed assessments of each other’s fashion faux-pas, the two teens set off in Nancy’s powder-blue convertible to figure out why 1985 is beginning to look so much like 1955. They beat a retreat back to the 1950s, and Nancy’s antiseptic home ground, Lakeview Heights, where even to Janice’s fine-tuned overwrought imagination the whole world has gone crazy.
Nancy asserts the world is just fine, where right is right and wrong is wrong, lawns are neatly trimmed, the always friendly neighborhood is peopled with Caucasians who are barbecuing, and showing off their latest lawn ornaments-Negro statuettes. Janice is convinced the place has a Ku Klux Klan chapter.
But there is something more deeply sinister going on, in the form of a societal blueprint that has White House fingerprints all over it: Operation Good Old Days-GOD, for short. The mission? To revive the “good old-fashioned family values” sorely lacking in contemporary youth, youth like Janice.
Those are some of the highlights of the Ann-Marie MacDonald/Beverley Cooper play Clue in the Fast Lane unfolding in daytime-soap-opera-like fashion at the Odyssey, courtesy of the gender and sexuality-bending theatre troupe, Screaming Weenies.
Clue, their seventh locally staged production, is a fast-clipped, laugh-a-half-minute jab at political and cultural authority gone mad, as seen through the lens of two teens who personify their respective eras’ female youth culture.
Long-time Weenie alum Christine Stoddard, who plays Janice and doubles as Ted Dickerson, Nancy’s boyfriend of 75 years-give or take-says the two teens are perfect foils for each other.
“They are two sides of teenage existence, the one who wants to please the society, the good girl, Nancy, whose father adores her, everything she does is right, and fits in with what the family expects.”
What she represents is also behind the reason a 1980s conspiracy-crazed, rightwing American president wants her to lead the charge to resurrect a Father Knows Best kind of existence.
Then there’s Janice, the opposite, a rebel. At least in her imagination, says Stoddard.
“It’s a very feminist play actually, all about young women empowering themselves and trying to make a path for themselves in their world, whatever that world might be,” explains Stoddard. “The dilemmas Nancy faces in the ’50s may not be the same as what Janice is facing in her context, but they mirror the issues Janice faces in the ’80s. They also parallel what teenage girls experience in 2006.”
Those dilemmas, says director Ilena Lee Cramer (herself a teen graduate of the 1980s), struck her as she did research for Clue and re-read some of the Nancy Drew novels on which the play’s format is partially based.
“At one point,” says Cramer, “I wondered how my single mom raised teenagers in the ’80s. There were such conflicting messages in that decade. You know, those cigarette ads saying, ‘We’ve come a long way, baby’ and then liberated women were saying they’re not feminist and they no longer needed feminism. All this, and the Barbie doll aisle is still pink, Easy-Bake Ovens are one of the biggest selling toys for girls, and Nancy Drew is still being read to children.”
For Cramer, laughter, that spoonful of sugar that eases the path of the bitter medicine, is ultimately the best means to reconcile “these fucked up things we’re supposed to accept.”
Comedy, the traditional court jester, and clowns are the tools that have historically given societies the freedom to say what they otherwise wouldn’t, she says. “You can’t comment on racism without it being a joke, but in this play, in this comedy there is a reference to the neighbor’s ornamental Negro statue. It’s a line set up so that you can say, ‘you’re freakin’ weird.’ It’s the only way we can still comment on these things.”
Things like Operation GOD.
At a time when public dissent and government wiretapping of citizens are making headlines once again in North American media, the play’s reference to government-conceived projects that begin with the word “Operation” remind Cramer that the era of McCarthy and the era of Reagan are still alive and well in 2006.
Elda Pinkney who plays Nancy Prew, says it’s no stretch to see Clue’s “Mr President” as George W Bush. “You know, the kind of striving for that nostalgic point of view that somehow life was better way back when, and we need to return to a particular form of family and gender relationships.”
So Nancy and Janice have their hands full trying to foil the dastardly family values plan. It’s a sleuthing project that brings them closer-much closer, says Stoddard. But that’s a whole other mystery.