Directed by Terry Martin
Set and Properties Design – Terry Martin
Costume Design – John Ahrens
Wig Design – Coy Covington
Lighting Design – Bryant Yeager
Sound Design – Kelsey Leigh Ervi
Diana Sheehan – Diana Vreeland
Ellen Locy – Yvonne
Reviewed Performance 8/21/2014
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Red energizes, it excites emotions and motivates action. It signifies pioneer spirit and leadership qualities, stimulated by ambition. Red was the favorite color of Diana Vreeland, the walls of her famous Park Avenue apartment, furniture and accessories bathed in rich reds and crimsons. And while the color red can denote these positive traits, too much can lead to dominance, anger, fear, intolerance and resentfulness. While I wasn’t there the day in 1971 when Vreeland was fired as editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, I can well imagine some or all of those latter traits reflected in the magazine’s decision.
Full Gallop, a play by Mary Louise Wilson and husband Mark Hampton, begins four months after that fateful day, its facts taken from Vreeland’s best-selling autobiography, D.V. Vreeland was at the epicenter of American fashion for over five decades, as the first fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar from 1936-1962 and then Vogue’s editor until her dismissal. Her fashion word was law for American women, and she had quite the eye for unusual talent; her selection of recently passed Lauren Bacall for a Harper’s Bazaar cover launched Bacall’s film career.
Mark Hampton is a well-received playwright as well as an actor/musician who has performed in NY clubs, with Chicago’s Second City and on Saturday Night Live. Wilson is an award-winning actress of stage, film and TV, having won the Tony Award for her portrayal of Big Edie in Broadway’s Grey Gardens. Wilson originated the role of Diana Vreeland for an Off-Broadway production of Full Gallop in 1996, winning both the Obie and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. She recreated the role again in 2004, and Full Gallop has now played all over the world.
Choosing probably the most vulnerable time in Ms. Vreeland’s life, the play picks up during the arrangements for a spontaneous dinner party, one she can ill afford, not to celebrate her return from Europe after four months but in the hopes of procuring funds from an invited wealthy friend to start up her own magazine.
At the opening of WaterTower’s production, Ms. Vreeland, played by Diana Sheehan, is in full determination and survival mode, other qualities induced by the color red. Speaking directly to the audience, she flits around the room, making phone calls to remind or invite guests, receiving flowers for the party, lighting but barely smoking cigarettes from her signature holder, and most importantly, keeping communication via the table intercom to her French personal assistant, whose most oft reply is “Oui” or “No”.
The set, a more subtle representation of Vreeland’s actual living room, was still ablaze in red – red flooring layered with a worn, Oriental red rug, red chintz sofa with multi-print red pillows, a leopard fabric draped chair, dual low side tables, a fleece-draped ottoman, a bar cart, and lots and lots of the things that make her happy, with plenty of Asian influence. Lighting by Bryant Yeager enriched the reds further by up-lighting with red, blue, rose and some gold LEDs. I particularly liked the use of three, faded red, hanging “photo shoot” screens used as divider walls to the foyer and hallway to the rest of the apartment. They lifted the atmosphere visually, adding even more of a groundless quality than Vreeland’s constant movement around the room.
Other productions have clothed Vreeland in the fashion trends of the day, gaudy colors and excessive jewelry, which was her style of course, but in the realm of the play left her more one-note. This is why John Ahrens’ choice of all black was subtle perfection. Knowing she would, of course, change into full regalia for her dinner party, he dressed Vreeland, from her black, lacquered hair to black stockings and slippers, to be more visually vulnerable, as if naked. No flashy colors or over abundance of jewelry to hide behind. The only pop came from the red nails and a more subdued swath of red rogue on Sheehan’s cheeks and curve of her ears than in reality, where Vreeland smeared her cheeks and temples in more and more rogue as the years went on. Ahrens’ design was simple and unpretentious but spoke loudly because of it.
The script is a funny, sometimes poignant exposition of Vreeland’s life and her glorious associations with the most creative artists of her era – she dined or stayed at the homes of fashion designers such as Balenciaga and Chanel, saw all of Nijinsky’s performances with Ballet Russes, studied Kabuki with renowned Bando Tamasaburo, and rubbed elbows with the gossip columnists and talent agents of the day, her name and goings on always in the papers. And it mattered not if one doesn’t know these people, the play’s dialogue and Sheehan’s exuberance easily brought the audience into Vreeland’s world. She used words grandly, “with the exhilarating effect of Cole Porter’s lyrics”, said playwright Wilson. She had opinions on just about anything, but especially on color, style and the arts. Announcing “We all need a splash of vulgarity . . . no taste is what I’m against” or “Nobody cares about authenticity if it’s ugly” sums up this woman of vision of beauty most clearly.
Diana Sheehan seemed to have poured herself directly into Vreeland’s body, deftly recreating her physically and, most especially, emotionally. Like the walls behind her, she floated from one place to another, never lighting for long, much as a butterfly looking for a sheltered place to rest. Sheehan’s rough-hewn, cigarette voice magnified this woman of great and lengthy verbosity. Grand hand gestures, her red nails flashing, wide arm movements and sweeping crosses around the room all reflected the vibrancy and bit of pomposity of the woman, and Sheehan played them to the hilt. Sheehan understood Vreeland’s somewhat ludicrous behavior and didn’t force the laughs, playing her humor naturally.
At first I thought we would only see this one part of the woman, as the script leans heavily to that side. However, with Director Terry Martin’s guidance and Sheehan’s skill, one could observe Vreeland’s world slipping slightly askew, exposing her fear through small acting nuances. Sheehan curled up on the couch several times as though a small child rather than of sixty eight years. Her outside world became the black rotary phone which Sheehan waltzed around the room on long cord, communicating to old friends like a lifeline. And just as her red badge of courage began to slip, she’d again pick up the scathing newspaper gossip article of her “demise” and one could visibly see Shehan’s mind wheels turning as Vreeland flamboyantly regrouped while scheming yet another phoenix rising from the ashes, as she did so many times throughout her life.
I am a stickler for detail when at all possible, and so my only negative comment comes with Vreeland’s playing of a record (you know, those black, round discs with a hole in the middle?) Sheehan had barely time to place the record into the console when the music started. Then a mere touch of her hand toward the record and the music style or singer changed completely. In a set and performance so aptly presenting the story, those awkward sound cues jolted one out of the reality being made, even if only for the moment. Kelsey Leigh Ervi’s music selections, then, during intermission and afterward, were nice reflections of Vreeland’s Parisian childhood, sung by chanteuses such as Eartha Kitt and Shirley Bassey.
Towards the end of the play Vreeland is reminded of something, and this won’t be a spoiler but hopefully will resonate for you as it did for me. Vreeland has come to an impasse in her fight to both keep her spirits up and find the strength to start again, and Sheehan plops on the floor in front of the sofa. She pauses awhile and then says, “I’m thinking about the Queen of Hungary. Elizabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, was one of the first modern women”. She goes on to say how she saw the very blouse the empress wore when she was murdered. There was a tiny slit where a stiletto had gone in. Apparently the empress barely let on and Vreeland was aghast as to why no one had known she had been stabbed, why there wasn’t any visible blood. “It was the corseting, you see”, explained Vreeland. “She was so tightly laced that there was no external bleeding of any kind. And she just kept walking, kept walking, kept walking . . .”. Wouldn’t it just be like Vreeland to use fashion as a metaphor to her own feelings! And what a beautiful description of her own unique lifestyle.
WaterTower Theatre’s Full Gallop is a fully developed, fashion photograph of a play, taken during a small portion in the life of a most amazing, modern woman of our time. Beautifully designed and acted, it generates both a lightheartedness and pathos, much as a great photograph can. It is one even Diana Vreeland wouldn’t need to retouch.
Addison Theatre Centre
15650 Addison Road
Addison, TX 75001
***Limited run through August 31st
Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $22.00 Wednesday-Thursday, $27.50 Friday-Sunday.
For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.watertowerthetre.org or call the box office at 972-450-6232. If available, tickets may also be purchased at the box office.