Fashion was a big hit for actress-turned-playwright Anna Cora Mowatt in 1845 and has since been cited as the best American comedy of the 19th century. Yet many of today's theatergoers are unfamiliar with the play, and it can hardly be considered part of the dramatic canon. Enter Looking Glass Theatre, the OOBR Award-winning company dedicated to resurrecting lost classics by women.
Director Justine Lambert misfired, however, in her approach to Fashion. Her show was done in by its own ambition. It was an elaborate and vivacious production, but all that energy and creativity ultimately leave the impression of being overblown. Fashion is a satire of those who have to keep up with the latest trends, and to emphasize how this theme is still timely 150 years later, Lambert included some 1990s fashions-rap music, laptops, beepers, "whatever"-in the production. She would have been better off choosing either to do the play as a period piece or to update it. By doing a little of both, the result was a hodgepodge that threatens to dilute Mowatt's message.
Mowatt wrote Fashion to poke fun at America's enthrallment to European style. Although the idol is different today, there are still slaves to fashion, and they're just as ridiculous as those of Mowatt's time. This play would work if it were set in the present and all the European customs that the characters emulate were replaced with contemporary fads. But Lambert's fragmented updating gave those scenes a contrived and confused feel. Her best choice would have been to do the play as written. The company obviously had the wherewithal to come up with nicely detailed costumes and sets-they just took those details over the top for this version (the costumes, for instance, looked like 19th-century attire designed by a drag queen). In traditional dress and with Mowatt's script unadulterated, Fashion would still be an entertaining and persuasive show. Mowatt's script would, in fact, seem even more prescient.
In their eagerness to give the play a flamboyant and farcical air, some Looking Glass actors spoke too excitedly, so the audience might miss some of the humor (the funniest lines come from a character's bad French:"jenny says quoy" for je ne sais quoi, for example). The actors in general were fine-the accents and characterizations by Elissa Olin and Jaime Sandoz in particular are amusing-but they all should have enunciated as well as their co-star Stacey Linnartz did. The performers worked hard, but like the other production elements, their zeal had a muddling effect on a well-written play.
(Also featuring Rachel Permann, John Justin Whitney, Ali Costine, Monica Yudovich, Seana Lee Wyman, Jeff Williams, Brad Harmon, David Palmieri and Dan Salyer. Set, Rick Sobel; costumes, A. Christina Giannini; lighting, Brian J. Lilienthal.)
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Copyright 1998 Adrienne Onofri