THE ARMOR PLAYS: CINCHED & STRAPPEDBy Selina Fillinger
Directed by Leslie Swackhamer
Assistant Director – Emily Neves
Scenic Design – Jocelyn Giriorie
Sound Design – Madeleine Morris
Lighting Design –Philip Powers
Costume Design Cinched – Jeremy Bernadoni
Costume Design Strapped – Aaron Patrick DeClerk
Costume Assistant – Shahrzad Mazaheri
Voice & Text Direction – Krista Scott
Fight Choreographer – Jeff Collangelo
Stage Manager – Michelle Foster*
Production Assistants – Emily Ann Probus, Charlotte McGaughy
Lord Burrows, Ved- James Crawford*
Tabitha, Igg-Ana Hagedorn*
Lady Ada, Tot-Ania Lyons**
Lord Witherton, Cal-Seth Magill*
Lady Witherton, Goo-Sophie Neff
Lady Glessing, Arb-Christie Vela*
* Member of Actor’s Equity Association
** Equity Membership Candidates
Reviewed Performance: 6/10/2019
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Cinched is the story of a Victorian dinner party run amok. The title refers to the cinching of a corset, and the play opens with the drop-dead gorgeous Christie Vela in an utterly hilarious depiction of the comically vain Lady Glessing. A curved wall of morphing video images, which are instrumental to cueing the changes in weather and settings throughout both plays, treats us to a close-up of hands pulling a corset tight. Tabitha, played with a perfect “Downstairs” servant accent by the talented Ana Hagedorn, is being harangued by her boss, Lady Glessing, to tighten her corset. The Director’s Notes explain that, “The corset is one of the most controversial garments in the cultural history of fashion.” Or, as Lady Glessing explains, “A lady doesn’t eat, Tabitha. She nibbles.”
Vela is hilarious as she screeches, flounces, poses, and preens in expectation of her beloved Lord Burrows (James Crawford). She transforms her face into a hilariously haughty, toothy mug, reminiscent of the mean white lady in a Disney cartoon. In addition to being gorgeous, Vela is a Shakespearean scholar, director, and all-around treasure in the theater community. The two Armor plays are a great showcase for her formidable range of comedy and gravitas.
When the lustfully awaited Lord Burrows and the mistakenly invited Lord Witherton (Seth Magill) arrive, they both know to immediately gush over Lady Glessing’s lovely appearance. Vela, Crawford, and Magill are wonderfully comic as bumbling, Victoria-Era gentry.
We immediately know that something is amiss with Lady Witherton (Sophie Neff). As the evening proceeds, she appears to be suffering from both post-partum psychosis and over- and mis-medication administered by her idiot husband. When Lord Witherton explains that he needs money for a study of female hysteria, Lord Burrows quips that one does not need a university degree to be familiar with that. As it turns out, neither Lord has a clue.
The gall of male arrogance when exerting control over female medical issues they know nothing about is one thing playwright Selina Fillinger challenges. That women who suffer from post-partum psychosis are nonetheless forced to keep having children is one of the injustices of depriving women of autonomy over their reproductive health. Another is the need for women to resort to seedy abortion services to evade “ruin,” while their erstwhile lovers lie with impunity.
Lady Glessing uses the ruse of her missing fan to get Lord Burrows alone. She expects Lord Burrows to marry her, an event we are fairly sure is not going to happen after seeing his interaction with his “niece,” played with youthful exuberance and coquettish charm by a lovely Ania Lyons. Lyons perfectly portrays the plight of a young woman at the mercy of a man who likes his women ignorant. I had not realized how very much I wanted to see a scene like this. If you have ever been treated like an unladylike pariah merely for Thinking While Female (Fillinger knows what I mean!), then you are going to savor the Crawford-Lyons exchange here.
In the Lady Glessing-Lord Burrows exchange, Vela and Crawford are utterly hilarious, and the funny dialogue is simultaneously laced with serious barbs. He refuses to marry her: “Why would I ruin [our fun] by marrying you?” When Lord B suggests that Lady G is deluded by grief for her late husband, the Lady seethes, “I am not mourning, you imbecile. I am alone.”
Vela is stunning in her character’s outrage, transforming Lady Glessing from a vacuous fool into a sympathetic victim of male selfishness. As she lays into Lord Burrows, we need not be too concerned for him; he is insulated by his never-wavering confidence that he is, after all, entitled to do whatever he wants. Vela delivers a deliciously vindictive rant, “I think all of my evenings with you have been mistakes.” The Lady has paid dearly for them, but the Lord has not. “We are all going to spend time snuggled up to our mistakes.” Welcome to one heck of a dinner party!
Lady Glessing knows which buttons to push. Apparently, the good Lord has something of a John Ashcroft aversion to sorcery. Lady Glessing runs the gambit of inappropriate topics, and Crawford and Magill are hilarious in their shock and trapped discomfort. “I’m sorry,” Lady G coos with well-savored insincerity. “Did I just make this evening uncomfortable?”
While the two lords have much in common, the dinner party devolves into a hilarious slapstick fight between them, over the uncouth subject of the late Glessing’s wardrobe. Both the dialogue and the blocking are imminently amusing. “You namby-pamby.” No, “YOU are the nambiest of all the pambies.”
I cannot overstate how great Crawford is as the vainglorious, womanizing Lord Burrows. His character is a stand-in for rich louts everywhere, but at the same time, the fun he is having is infectious.
Hagedorn makes a number of harried, comic entrances, and when her character gets serious, she plays her part with convincing intensity. Neff is sympathetic, and also a little scary, as the zoned-out psychotic.
The end of Cinched portends the change in women’s attitudes in Strapped. As the two Lords enter a conspiracy of cover-up and corruption, the women transition from crippling restraint to strapping on weaponry.
Strapped is set in a dystopian future where Arb (Vela), Goo (Neff) and Igg (Hagedorn) are hardened underground warriors in the sewer-scape “pit.” The wounded leader, Arb, explains to new recruit Cal (Magill), that there are a number of words that have become antiquated in the pit: Trust. Choice. Rain.
Cal is from the Upper world, and we soon learn that he has sacrificed himself, and thereby is doomed to a hellish rebel existence, to save his daughter from a quick death sentence for getting pregnant—if she is lucky; they might also torture her to death as part of ongoing human experimentation.
In the future, severe weather events produced calamities used to (allegedly) justify draconian laws policing reproduction—with women being the ones to suffer.
As a newbie, Cal makes a serious mistake by stealing an apple from a highly monitored location. The women have conniptions over what seems like a minor deviation from orders, but ultimately we learn they were not overreacting. This plot point is also a chance to enjoy the precision of Vela, Neff, and Hagedorn’s performances. As Arb, Goo, and Igg share the apple, these actors do a beautiful job of wordlessly communicating how long it has been since their characters have had a decent bight to eat.
Cal’s mistake has led Upper squad leader Ved (Crawford) to the rebel’s lair. Crawford and Vela communicate with their eyes that the characters have a backstory, and the ensuing verbal exchange is searing. When Ved takes a pot-shot at Arb’s appearance, she shoots back that, “Pain is the new pretty.” Vela is phenomenal as the defiant and wounded fighter who has traveled so far down the path of destruction that she is a different person than the woman Ved used to know. Arb tells Ved that he no longer knows her; in the dramatically jaw-dropping ending we realize how true that is. Lyons is Tot, as sixteen year old pimping herself out in order to deliver life-saving intel to the rebels. Lyons displays the gravitas of an older actor when she delivers the lyrical final lines. “I am the battleground. I have been the war. I have been the casualty. And now, by some miracle, I am life.” (Maybe not exact word-for-word, but close).
Magill is effectively endearing as the resolute hero, ultimately accepting the high price of his former complacency. Merely feeling guilty for your privilege is not enough.
I am the last one to say that the news is a virtuous object of anyone’s contemplation these days. But Fillinger does a pretty irrefutable job of driving home the point that if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. The Director’s Notes state that, “Since we began rehearsals for this play, there has been a spike in news about men exerting control over women’s bodies.” Twenty-five white men and one white woman in Alabama passed a law making it illegal for a twelve year old raped by her father to have a safe abortion; the doctor will be jailed for 99 years.
That is not the bad old days. That is not a dystopian future. That’s last month. I could go on; the Director’s Notes do. Fillinger is challenging us: Are you sure there will always be a guardrail? Where is the line? For how long will you shrug and enjoy GoT reruns instead of the news?
The perfect timing of Armor’s themes is eerie. I can tell you that the light and sound design in Cinched deliver a perfect facsimile of a dangerous storm that causes a tree to fall, damaging the building and hindering the dinner preparations, because I lived through a dangerous tree-felling storm just the day before. Living without power, navigating through streets blocked by fallen trees, and the sound of a transformer blowing—this has been our Dallas life. None of it approaches the gritty hellscape of Strapped. Nonetheless, Fillinger’s challenge to our complacency is as relevant to the times as it could possibly be.
The lighting design is also beautiful, as for example in the artful dimming of spotlights in Strapped. The functional sets deliver us into two very different worlds. The piping in Strapped is particularly impressive.
The elaborate Victorian costumes in Cinched are exquisite, and they also include complicated undergarments. The Strapped costumes are equally impressive and also accommodate disrobing, as when Lyon’s Tot transforms from sex worker to underground rebel.
I loved Armor, and have thought about its themes since. Kudos to Theatre Three for bringing us Fillinger’s work, and doing phenomenal justice to the prescient material. Every performance, every expression, and every delivery of every line is convincing perfection. Do not miss the Armor Plays!
June 6-30, 2019, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
The Quadrangle, 2800 Routh St #168, Dallas, TX 75201
For information and Tickets call (214) 871-3300or go to https://www.theatre3dallas.com/shows-tickets/.