In Full Gallop, Sally Edmundson Captures the Spirit of Fashion Doyenne Diana Vreeland
The set-up: Let's talk D.V. That would be Diana Vreeland, or Dee-ahh-na, for those of you not in the loop. For decades she was the reigning monarch of fashion, first as columnist and stylish greyhound at Harper's Bazaar, then as editor-in-chief of Vogue, later as curator of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute in NYC. She set trends, brought style to the masses, and generally dictated who or what would become household names on that rarefied street known as Fashion Avenue.
With her signature, idiosyncratic personality, she was her own one-woman show, so it's appropriate that she's entirely center stage in Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson's Full Gallop (1995). But like any page from Vogue, the play is extremely stylish, immensely colorful, and just as thin.
The execution: Miss Vreeland (Sally Edmundson in delicious diva mode) - she would blanch to be called Ms. - has been unceremoniously sacked from her throne at Vogue. She is no longer in fashion, she's been told, the world has moved on. Her future is behind her. Undeterred and determined to move forward, she arranges a dinner party in hopes of getting funds for some unspecified project: book, new magazine, anything to pay the many unpaid bills. She wrestles the latest invoice into a beautiful little coffer on her desk. She has to push down to make room for it.
As if we're in the room with her, she addresses the audience directly. Comfy chairs and side tables ring the stage, a lovely touch which pulls us directly into her world. "I hope you like peonies," she says to the person sitting next to the table upon which she places an immense arrangement. Moments later, rethinking the look and knowing it blocks the audience behind it, she exchanges the vase for a smaller one of tulips. Flowers are everywhere. "Is it too much, or not enough?" she asks peering around the room as if copy editing it. Immediately she's off on a riff about taste and vulgarity. "I'm a great believer in vulgarity. No taste is what I'm against!"
In a running gag, which only gets funnier as it goes along, she interacts with her nonchalant French maid (Maria Edmundson) via intercom, ordering dinner - whose courses get smaller and smaller as Vreeland can't get credit at the grocers or pay the cook - sending her out for cigarettes, and running interference as her friends telephone to offer condolences for the New York Post's hatchet job about her firing at Vogue.
In a series of reminiscences, stream-of-consciousness, and gossip, Vreeland entertains while pontificating on her likes and dislikes, a bit of her autobiography, and evidence of her life force and ability to reinvent herself when times get tough. When in doubt, fake it, is her mantra. She's one resilient broad, dropping bold-faced names, Wilde-esque epigrams, and amusing anecdotes like next season's hemlines. It's terribly classy, if somewhat soignee, but you can't beat the story of the eccentric English businessman who dressed his three pet gorillas in overcoats and bowler hats and took a spin around London. Or international chanteuse Josephine Baker and her leashed cheetah going to the movies. If you're of a certain age, you'll catch all the dishy references to Elsa Maxwell, Leon Bakst, Anna Pavlova, the Duke of Windsor. If you're someone who wears a T-shirt and jeans to the theater - and sees nothing wrong with this sartorial choice - you might find yourself baffled at the superficiality of it all.
But you won't be put off by Edmundson, who plays this fashion doyenne to perfection. Much more handsome than Vreeland, Edmundson catches her spirit with tremendous elan. Reed-thin, she looks smashing in her all-black ensemble. Great swathes of rouge run up her cheeks like a model's runway, an ivory bauble the size of a mastodon's molar dangles around her neck, and her jet black hair is coiffed á la geisha. She's her own Kabuki theater.
A consummate artist, Edmundson says most even when she says very little. Explaining her beloved husband Reed's death from cancer, she pauses ever so briefly, and we fill in the blanks that she leaves unsaid out of respect and politeness. Then she suddenly switches gears and comically confronts that chair she's been battling from the play's beginning. After tearing off the slip cover, she balls it up and decorously makes a pillow out of it. Edmundson's a master of the little gesture that tells all. This is one of her signature roles and her performance should not be missed.
Jodi Bobrovsky's delicious set shouldn't be missed either. In photo realism, the master designer has recreated Vreeland's eye-catching NY apartment with its Chinese-red paisley wallpaper, zebra rugs, animal print cushions, low lamps, and expensive knickknacks galore. It's elegant, over-the-top, and cozy all at the same time. Even the program cover is Chinese red. Wonderful.
The verdict: Diana Vreeland was the ultimate showman and manipulative purveyor of hucksterism. She instinctively knew how to sell people things they never knew they wanted. Last year's orange becomes this year's tangerine. Whatever you do, do it with style, a little panache. Alright, lots of panache. How can you not admire Vreeland (or at least wonder in amazement) who ironed her dollar bills and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich washed down with a glass of scotch. With Edmundson firmly at the reins, Full Gallop has panache for days.
Performances of Full Gallop continue through September 14 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Purchase tickets online at www.stagestheatre.com or call 713-527-0123. $19-$65.
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