To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘Girls in the Boat’ makes a splash in the Merrick Theater

Last weekend, the Undergraduate Theater Collective’s (UTC) alternate space show went up in the Merrick Theater in the Spingold Theater Center: “Girls in the Boat,” a play about adversity, teamwork and the power of women who unite for a common goal. Written by Alice Austen, “Girls in the Boat” tells the story of the U.S. Olympic Women’s rowing team—its establishment, the obstacles faced by the women who rowed on this team for the (number) of years since its founding and the camaraderie they developed (or lack thereof). The play bravely tackles a 44 year time span, from 1972 up until the 2016 Rio Olympics in Austen’s attempt to encapsulate the history of the most successful U.S. sports team. The Coxswain, Stroke, Girls 3 through 7 and Bow are all based on several real women rowers who actually existed and joined this team, but Austen takes creative liberties with identity, never naming any of the girls. As a result, we as readers and watchers of the play have no idea who is meant to be who.

The show’s eleven person ensemble was guided swiftly and strongly through the admittedly choppy waters of the script by senior and debut director Sarah Kaplan ’24. Kaplan’s focus on the women collective and ensemble building throughout the rehearsal process was evident from the moment the full cast stepped onstage. Each girl, despite their identical costumes of blue athletic shorts and white T-shirts striped with red, white and blue, was unique, especially as they took on the roles of different women. These transitions of character were made clear to the audience once they began with the very marked line, “The girls who replace us are us.” This line also served as a unifying statement for all iterations of the women’s rowing team, saying that their passion for the sport and dedication to the team make them essentially identical.

We follow each girl as a unique individual, seeing pieces of their upbringings, how they got into rowing, their college lives and their sports careers. Their work to give women’s rowing, and women as driving forces of change, the credit they deserve is the driving force behind much of the action of the play. We see many of these women develop distinct personalities throughout the show as well. The Coxswain (Vivi Cao ’26) came to rowing after injuring herself in a gymnastics competition to the point where she could no longer compete, and instead finds her place in the boat using her strong “bleeping” voice to keep the show family-friendly as she commands and coaches her team in races. Girl 2 (Nina Borzekowski ’26) is a literature major, who attempts to inspire her teammates with optimistic boating- and water-related quotes and themes from classic texts such as “The Great Gatsby,” bringing moments of humor into an otherwise very determined and poignant story. Girl 6 (Lucy Ernst ’27) goes on a hugely significant journey, learning from a deep family loss to at first begrudgingly find her place in the boat, but later to become the U.S. Olympic Women’s Rowing Team coach. Girl 7 (Zahra Lohoue ’27) makes a formidable figure as she plays a rower who also studied to be a lawyer, speaking in front of the U.S. Olympic Committee to fight for the U.S. to not withdraw from the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The Stroke (Saaya Daga ’27), Girl 3 (Emily Moreno ’27), Girl 4 (Dahlia Ramirez ’27), Girl 5 (Zyley Bender ’27) and the Bow (Claudia Cummings ’27) round out an absolutely stellar cast who command excellent presence and tell a compelling story brilliantly, despite being full of enough facts and figures to personally make my head spin.

The art of women bonding and teamwork becomes the heart of the show, as we see these women learn about each other, how to find their places on the team, and how to work together whether they end up liking their teammates or not. The two male ensemble members (Jacob Budner ’27 and Connor Papantony ’26) were also very versatile and strong actors, each taking on three roles over the course of the show and supporting one another and the rest of the ensemble in their roles as brothers, fathers, reporters, coaches and male rowers.

The immediate sense of community and teamwork worked to buoy the actors and the audience through the show: it clips along at a furious pace, running at about an hour and twenty minutes with no intermission and very few moments to breathe, mimicking the rowing that the female ensemble engages in several times throughout the play. In fact, the actors who played the titular girls in the boat learned how to row from the co-captains of the Brandeis women’s rowing team. Without oars but with a working sense of timing, the girls sat in a stream of blue light, helping the audience to envision the titular boat in an otherwise entirely empty stage. The Merrick is a tough space to direct a show in, but working with no fixed set pieces and utilizing strong lighting and blocking choices was a strategy that paid off well for this show.

The cast works to tell an inspiring story in an open space while providing important commentary about women’s sports, rights and equality in general. Title IX, established across college campuses in the 1970s, gives these women rowers a platform to demand equal access to facilities and equipment. The language used in the show is not at all unfamiliar to the Brandeis campus, understanding that the fight for justice for many different social groups has come a long way and takes many different forms. Austen’s language strongly attacked all institutions who fail to provide any of its members fair treatment under the law, and evoked a strong sense of purpose and passion in everyone present.

All of the previous elements combine to have made “Girls in the Boat” a wonderful production and a great part of the UTC’s spring 2024 season.

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