The Bride at Stages Works Best When Denise Fennell Talks About Her Family

Denise Fennell of Sister game has a new play.
Denise Fennell of Sister game has a new play. Photo by Melissa Taylor

"Here comes the bride." "Where is the bride?" "How's the bride's makeup?" For some reason, on the day of a bride's wedding, the woman no longer has a name and must live in the liminal space between girlfriend and wife that days before would have simply been considered the fiancée.

An unlikely bride, Denise Fennell returns to Stages with her one-woman comedy play, The Bride, Or: Does This Dress Make Me Look Married? She was previously seen in Stages' Shear Madness and as Sister in Late Night Catechism. Though there aren't any nuns in this production, Fennell can't help but imbue her story with clear nods to her Irish-Italian Catholic roots.
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How to become a bride of "a certain age"
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Glint in her eyes, Fennell's wit and enthusiasm is on full display when she reminisces about her family members like her irascible uncles  or her "hyperactive" sister. There were times I had wished that the members of her family did show up on stage. The drama of her family is more engaging than the comedy inspired by the wedding.

Much of the comedy comes from Fennell's reminiscing on her past and how so much has changed- especially with technology. A child of the '80s, her riffs on technology ("Remember when phones were dumb") received laughs from the older audience though rung unoriginal to younger audiences who can recite the trite gripes about phones and the Internet in their sleep.
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Fennell was at her best when she concentrated on family.
Photo by Melissa Taylor

Her pop culture references and cultural touchstones are predominantly from the '70s and '80s which can explain why some of the comedy won't land if the knowledge isn't there.

While the comedy was hit-or-miss, the play was at its best when Fennell mused upon the various members of her family and in the highlight of the performance, Sunday Supper. Though she's wearing a wedding dress, it's clear family is what Fennell really wants to talk about. The wedding is merely means to get there.

In fact, it's when the play centers on marriage and the bride that it feels like you're taking a detour from the real activity. There's a sequence when Fennell re-enacts the presentation she gave to her traditional Italian-Catholic mother to convince her why her wedding is outdoors and not in a church.

The presentation is a bare-boned, elementary history of marriage from the prehistoric to the present- with mentions of dinosaurs, Queen Victoria, and of course, Pinterest! Coming from an Irish-Catholic background, it obviously focuses on Western European developments of how marriage worked. While there were some in the audience who seemed impressed by this new information, it seemed strange to include a generalized history of Western European marriage when the actual conflict between mother and daughter seemed more richly specific: the traditional perspective of an Italian Catholic vs. the "progressive" perspective of a second-generation Italian American who spent her early adulthood wanting to leave her family aside and chart a more individual course! That's the drama. No need for the powerpoint.

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What a bride wants, what family and friends want, and how they might intertwine after all in a wedding ceremony.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Fennell savors the moments when she interacts with the audience as when she riffs with a few couples in the front-row about which side of the bed they've been forced to endure since marriage. She bounces back from one side of the stage to another. It's not rare for her to lock eyes with someone as she builds up to a punchline and upon its release, her gaze flits.  She moves on again — making her way across and around the stage until the next punchline.
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A one-woman show in which she plays off other unseen characters.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Sometimes, the audience fare distracts from the overall story. In a moment of audience indulgence, Fennell, acting as Bob Barker, subjects the audience to a game of the "Bride is Right" where a woman in the audience (an actual fiancée at this performance) must answer five questions correctly about marriage. Through audience assistance, host guidance, and the magical "Bride-Is-Always-Right" pass, the answers are answered correctly. However, the game didn't build upon any of the earlier story and its transition was rough.

The absolute design highlight of this production is the costume design. Katherine Snider's ingenuity for Fennell's costumes is awe-inducing. When Fennell reveals that the short sleeve tulle is actually a cropped jacket, it was like watching a real-life Pinterest hack. The layered tulle flare is actually a skirt Fennell removes toward the end. Two accessories elevated a simple white dress to high-fashion levels. Was Christian Dior's dress for Alicia Markova when she performed Giselle an inspiration? If so, this critic noticed.
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Her original wedding dress was a wonder to behold.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
The champagne-colored sleeveless dress worn when Fennell was Bob Barker looked like a bridesmaid gown a bridesmaid would actually want to wear. She'd even wear it on more than the wedding day. Though Snider doesn't mention bridal consultations in the playbill, she has a keen eye for its design.

The laughter isn't consistent, and the story can flounder between family history and wedding-day anxiety. However, Fennell's clear appreciation of her family and joy at having created another play with her now-husband is enough to endure an 80-minute show. Any reminder to cherish family and take the time to remember our loved ones should be welcomed- especially when COVID prevented many from being in physical contact with them for long periods of time.

Performances continue through May 14 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Gordy. 800 Rosine. For more information call, 713-527-0123 or visit $30-$84.
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Contributor Ada Alozie was a former contributor for Rescripted, an online Chicago arts blog, for two years before moving to Houston and joining the Houston Press team. The majority of her experience in theater comes from her previous work experience as both playwright and director. She has developed work with the Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. She is, also, a member of the Dramatists Guild.