Screen capture by Keith Waits
An adaptation based on Fashion by Anna Cora Mowatt
With Excerpts from A Voice from the South – by Anna Julia Cooper
Adapted by Faculty, Staff, & Students in the
University of Louisville Department of Theatre Arts
Directed by J. Ariadne Calvano
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Popular culture sometimes seems like an addiction to remakes, re-imaginings, and reboots. Rarely do the motivations rise above the appetite of the commercial marketplace. Give the people what they want, the corporate overlords seem to say, which is more of the same.
Theatre is not exempt from that callous equation, but this production takes a familiar and even comfortable scenario, strips it of its racist and misogynist trappings, and provides a sharper deconstruction of the genre tropes from the original play. Tropes that still rear their head today.
I don’t know Anna Cora Mowatt’s 1848 play Fashion, but a narrator (Brandi LaShay) calls out the archaic use of a blackfaced butler, cut in this update, but crucial context for the revisionist perspective at work here. The plot is very Jane Austen, the Tiffany family seeking a good marriage for their daughter, Seraphina (Emma Lauter). Everything about the plot and characters seems derivative and out-moded which makes it especially ripe for reinvention.
That reinvention reverses the racial and gender stereotypes with a multi-racial cast and a clear sense of satirical irony that demands the audience accept the wink and a nod. The story requires some fairly incredible misunderstandings that are the foundation of a lot of 19th-century melodrama and it all goes down much easier if you give yourself over to it. Authorship of this adaptation is credited to a group the perimeters of which are left a mystery, but we can guess it was at the very least all specifically involved in the production under some supervision of Dramaturg Dr. Janna Segal. Sometimes a dramaturg explicates and sometimes they light a fuse.
Director Ariadne J. Calvano stages her virtual frames with an eye for the subtle comedy derived from the limited movement within those frames. So many early virtual productions kept the performers stationed tightly before their laptops, but here each character is allowed to move more freely. It is especially crucial because there are moments in which there are a dozen frames/characters on the viewer’s screen at one time. The depth and variance of the blocking help to break the inevitable repetition and limitation of the video conference formatting and let the actors bring welcome feeling and detail into their work. They lean in and away from the “camera” and break the edges of their frame with ingenuity.
Calvano also pushes her cast to overplay to a calculated degree, establishing the delicious tone of a French bedroom farce, bolstered by breezy Gallic-flavor drawings of interior settings from designers Kevin Gawley and Jerome Willis. Zhanna Goldentul’s costumes match that temper perfectly, nicely answering the desperate challenge to deliver impactful design within these wretched frames.
Because we all know that everything theatre companies are doing right now is hampered by the necessity of technology. However clever the work, it always longs for the specific and sacred atmosphere of the space shared by the audience and the actor. But for the moment…
I always feel it a cop-out to recognize a unified ensemble, as if one cannot take the time to recognize everyone individually, but given that none of them are working together in a space, that achievement seems especially important. I will note Alicia Fireel’s plummy French accent as Millinette, and that Jordan Tudor as Gertrude and Jahi Bogard as Mr. Tiffany arguably benefits from the more broadly played performance around them to come off as disciplined and understated in comparison. Those broader moves are nicely realized by Latrice Richardson, all fluttery mock outrage as Mrs. Tiffany and Alex Gordon as the untrustworthy Count Jolimaitre. But let it be said that there was nary a false note or misstep from anyone in this virtual stage.
Featuring Jahi Bogard, Aliyah Brutley, Alicia Fireel, Alex Gordon, Sa’id Kelly, Brandi LaShay, Emma Lauter, Rachel Meadors, Michael Moreno, Latrice Richardson, & Aiden Strivers
January 28-30, 2021
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.