“The Unicorn Brigade” Shows How Defying Convention Can Become Innovation

Last Friday and Saturday in Sci 101, a space that is normally reserved for classes and lectures, a stage unfolded with chalk drawings, unicorn emblems, and drawings galore. A hushed crowd was drawn in to this old-yet-new space, waiting to see the complex parable of hard work and forced excellence.

“The Unicorn Brigade,” written and directed by Alex Kingsley ’20, presented to us a narrative about the darker aspects of the meritocracy and the way that it systematically destroys bright students. The performance shone as an example of the potential for large-scale student-run theater productions on campus — the extensive workshopping process that it underwent showed the strength of collaboration, and its making use of an inadequate theater space was indicative of student-led innovation for theater at Swarthmore.

The play had relevant themes and sparked important discussions around the darker aspects of school and studying. The performance itself could have been improved with smoother transitions, better cohesiveness, and a more apt acting space. Nevertheless, the show was a step in the right direction for student theater on campus, and it told an important story that all students can understand and learn from.

“The Unicorn Brigade” takes place on the campus of the most prestigious secondary school in the world, Fransdale Academy. The show’s title, “The Unicorn Brigade,” comes from the school’s coveted unicorn mascots that students are forced to wear on their cardigans. Fransdale, according to Kingsley, is based on the American school system, in which students are taught obedience and treated as either “good” or “bad.” Fransdale forces their students to take weekly tests, the resulting scores of which determine whether or not they can return home for vacations. Because Fransdale was built on a small island, there is allegedly no other means of escape for students. The catch, inspired by “Catch-22,” is that every time a student gets the highest possible score, Fransdale raises the scale of the tests. Abusive staff, cutthroat competition, and fake letters sent to parents exacerbate the isolation and stress-driven atmosphere of the school.

The show opens on the protagonist, Casey Watts (Camryn Slosky ’22) being introduced to Dr. Marlow, a therapist (Gwen Gilfond ’22) that Fransdale’s headmistress (Lydia Churchill ’22) hired to help Casey. Casey is the school’s drug dealer who went crazy a year ago, and spends the majority of the show relating her story to Dr. Marlow. The play then displays Casey’s experience as Fransdale’s top student, and the school’s overall brutality. For example, the headmistress and her crony, Larken (Youogo Kamgaing ’22) actively pits Casey and her roommate, Katya (Lydia Churchill ’22) against each other for the Golden Crabapple, an award for the best student at the school. The tension builds between Katya and Casey until Casey’s winning the award results in Katya’s suicide. In addition to this academic abuse, Fransdale staff punishes a student named Clark (Shail Modi ’21) by dressing him in a worm costume and turning him into a table. Because of the stress, Natalie (Jaimie Lopez ’22), Casey’s younger mentee, stops eating and sleeping in an attempt to emulate Casey’s success.

Casey, distraught after losing Katya and finally seeing through Fransdale’s shallowness, decides to destroy the school from the inside out by first disrupting the ceremony for the Golden Crabapple award. She then convinces students to refuse to take the tests, and to remove and discard their coveted badges. She then proceeds to lie to Mr. Stevens (Amaechi Abuah ’21), a school staff member, and the school’s nurse, Nurse Jackie (Emily Branam ’21) about having rickets so that she could hide in the infirmary. Eventually she figures out that Fransdale had only hired Dr. Marlow to convince Cesy to take her own life. This revelation, through a series of twists, leads to Fransdale burning down and leaving only three survivors. The play has no complete resolution, instead implying that students stay at Fransdale because they want to instead of being forced to, and that the staff plans on covering up the school’s abuses.

The play masterfully balanced comedy with moroseness, and scenes rapidly pivoted between making audience members giggle uncontrollably and making them gasp because of Fransdale’s horrors. The events of the show were hilarious to the audience because of their sheer outlandishness and absurdity. Slosky stated that while the audience laughed, however, the ridiculous punishments scarred the characters.

“Perhaps at different times the environment seemed humorous to the audience, but in the eyes of Casey, none of the events are “humorous,” rather, they are absurd and cruel. I think the humor came from the fact that, to the audience, all of the events were so outrageous and ridiculous that it came off as funny … There are scenes that go from outrageous hilarity to extreme drama in a matter of seconds and it took a lot of fine tuning and practice to mirror these shifts.”

“The Unicorn Brigade” is also unique in that, according to the show’s program, the play underwent an extensive workshopping process before rehearsals began. The workshop lasted for two months, and Kinglsey stated that in that time, “a lot changed” about the play, including a fleshing-out of characters. The workshop allowed actors to alter and connect to the piece in an act of in-depth collaboration that is not normally associated with theater.

Kingsley also thanked Emma Pernudi-Moon ’19, the show’s dramaturg (a literary editor for theater), for leading the workshop.

“The original script was really all over the place, and the workshop helped me focus in on a few key themes. For instance, the workshop inspired me to have Fransdale on an island to emphasize the sense of isolation. In fact, Fransdale didn’t even have a mascot in the original script, so the entire unicorn motif was completely an invention of the workshop.”

In another interview, Slosky also commented on the actors’ contributions to the play through the workshop.

“One way that the actors helped to shape the script was through character complexity. For example, initially, characters like Arnold (Collin Paul Spangler ’20) and Annie (Emily Branam ’21) were not very complex … Through the workshopping process, however, we were able to provide both of those characters with more dimensionality.”

The play followed a timeline anything but linear, given that the majority of the show took place through the eyes of Casey as she related her tale to Dr. Marlow. Scenes jumped back and forth throughout Casey’s four years at Fransdale, and it oftentimes became difficult to keep track of events as they occurred.

Kingsley stated that this confusion and fractured timeline was entirely intentional.

“Ironically, the original draft of the play had many more time jumps, but readers pointed out that even with the timeline in the background, it was too confusing to track the story … I still wanted to keep that fractured timeline, though, because I think it serves as a mirror for what’s going on in the [character’s] head … This is a story about a girl who thinks she is going crazy. What if in watching that story unravel, the audience begins to feel like they are going crazy too? I also know that I do not process events chronologically. When I recount events to my therapist, like Casey, I don’t always know where to begin because I don’t really know where the beginning is … When you’re trying to understand your own narrative, it is near impossible to keep straight.”

Slosky wrote that the nonlinear plot presented a challenge to the actors with regards to portraying the characters’ development.

“The nonlinear plot was one of my biggest challenges in portraying Casey … In order to jump back and forth for the majority of the play but then settle on her final form in the last few scenes required me to know Casey’s linear progression inside and out. I oftentimes had to think about what Casey would be thinking or where her mental state would be at this current memory.”

Rather than in a traditional theater, the show took place in Sci 101. Kingsley wrote about her choosing this space as a statement about the inaccessibility of theater spaces for students, and the challenges of staging a full-length production in a classroom.

She wrote, “Sci is long and shallow, the opposite of what you usually want from a stage. It has hardly any backstage, so we covered the sides with tapestries. The podium doesn’t move, so we incorporated it into the set … The school makes it very hard for us to use department theater spaces. We did the show in this space to prove a point: we need to support students arts by giving student artists a useful space to perform in. When the best space you have to perform in a classroom that is actually pretty awful to perform in, that’s when you know that there’s a problem.”

The cast and crew of “The Unicorn Brigade,” despite the shortcomings of the show’s physical location, certainly manipulated the area to the full extent of its capabilities. To help audience members keep track of the show’s timeline, the dates of the show alongside Casey’s test scores were written on the chalkboards. Gilfond, who played Dr. Marlow, then slid the chalkboards up and down to reveal new dates every time a new scene occurred. Before both acts of the play, a minute-long video played about Fransdale. The first was an ad for the school, and the second was a similar video which portrayed the “real,” maniacal Fransdale.

While Slosky was initially skeptical about staging a full-length play in Sci 101, she was pleased with the final result.

“When I first found out that the performance was going to be in Sci 101, I was unsure as to how the staging would work. I quickly realized, however, that the space actually fit the message of the play incredibly well. I also think Alex handled the staging with excellence, deciding to split the stage into three distinct areas: Dr. Marlow’s office, the courtyard, and a general classroom/dorm room space.”

Despite the complexity of the story and the physical location, “The Unicorn Brigade” managed to transform Sci 101 — a space that so many of us normally associate with stress and fear — into a space that represented even more imminent stress and fear. The play, while its social commentary on the American education ranges from roundabout and abstract to immediately viable for extrapolation, serves as an introspective glance on the flaws of basing self-worth on the meritocracy. While the second act of the play was admittedly slower than the first act, it forced the audience to think about environments to which young students subject themselves in the name of success. The cast and crew seamlessly integrated the plot with Sci 101, and delivered line after line of hilarity that was synonymous with Fransdale academy.

As for the future of “The Unicorn Brigade,” Kingsley stated that the play was recorded and will soon be online, both on YouTube and in the Underhill archive. She also plans on putting the play’s script in the National New Play Archive, so its text will soon be accessible to all.

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