A Fashion-Tinged Shaggy Dog Story: EVERYTHING YOU TOUCH at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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A Fashion-Tinged Shaggy Dog Story: EVERYTHING YOU TOUCH at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Libby Matthews

Libby Matthews

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 20, 2015

It would be tempting to describe Sheila Callaghan‘s Everything You Touch, now appearing at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, as a screed about feminine body image and the oppressiveness of fashion. But the play is hardly didactic enough to fit within that summary. I think it is better to call it simply a shaggy dog story that occasionally contains elements of a feminist critique of fashion.

This is a shaggy dog story starring a shaggy dog, Jess (Dina Thomas), a fashion-challenged young woman, overweight, with sticky hair and a computer nerd would-be boyfriend. “Maybe she scratches her ass,” read the stage directions. Living in New York, she is called back to the South to visit a dying mother, a mission she does not want to perform, and so delays for some days holed up in her apartment with – well, whom exactly is left to be discovered. But he has all the characteristics of her father, Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), a designer who approaches fashion as what we would call today an “extreme sport.” Here is the father in the 1970s addressing a model: “I want to see what television and film and a book and poetry can’t deliver. Immediacy. Fervor. Wreckage. When the model spits with rage, I want to feel that spittle. I want to smell your sweat. I want to taste your bile. I want my blood to boil. And I want to feel too overwhelmed after the experience to speak. This, to me, is the power of fashion.”

Victor certainly achieves wreckage; the model he addresses in this fashion promptly kills herself. And Victor himself has died not very long after giving this speech. So then what is he (if it is he) doing in the bed of a daughter who was not even born when he spat out these words? Well, that’s a story, actually two stories, of father and daughter, forty years apart, both stories awfully shaggy and canine. I do not intend to spoil the fun by divulging too many details.

Let me say just this. The fun is in the telling. Despite the strong suggestion in the script that Jess is better off keeping her distance from the dehumanizing world of fashion, a world in which a woman like Victor’s “muse,” Esme (Libby Matthews, pictured above), seems to exist for the sole purpose of scorning other women, there is a certain grudging celebration going on of fashion’s aesthetic and principles. The runway show near the show’s beginning fits with Victor’s grandiose and threatening ideals, but the off-kilter and semi-industrial outfits on display in that show are fun to watch, and obvious labors of love. (The notable costumes are by Peggy McKeown, and on the evidence of a program note, a sizeable contingent of collaborators.) And when Esme, the muse, suggests a fashion line for the upcoming season, you have to smile: “A G.I. Jezebel cabaret show. Military tailcoats, metal-epaulettes, shrapnel holes. Rusty bullet belts, sequined camos. And… septum rings made of hanging garnets! Nosebleed chic!”

There are two challenges to Esme’s aesthetic, however. One is schlumpy Jess, who turns out to be a refugee from Victor and Esme’s approach. The other is Louella (Marianna McClellan), a hayseed from Little Rock whose take on fashion is a drive toward the accessible and conventional, an approach summed up as “Dillard’s” (appropriately, since the chain is headquartered in Little Rock). And somehow the struggles among these three outlooks converge in Jess’s delayed voyage to see her dying mother.

From the standpoint of production values, this seems to be the biggest of the productions being mounted at Shepherdstown this season, between the costumes and the size of the cast (11, including an ensemble of actresses who, when not portraying fashion models, double as furniture and elements of the set). The overall effect is a bit like a fireworks display, with loud fun things happening more or less continually. It is not profound, a quality seldom looked for in shaggy dog stories, but the tale at its heart, a whimsical family drama, is sturdy enough, and perhaps the place where a more genuine feminism is lurking than may be found in the odd evocation of fashion. It was the right play of the lot to make the biggest deal of.

The leads are all superb, and the direction by May Adrales seems attuned to Callaghan’s stated objective of a play “racing out ahead of you” that “you have to catch.” Particularly at the conclusion, as a number of things are becoming clear, there is still a sense of not quite knowing where one is, whether we are in a flashback or in the present or in a projection of the essence of the present. And then suddenly we find ourselves in a brief conversation between Jess and the nerd who may be her boyfriend and we realize the strange journey is at an end, but we can barely catch our breath and digest what we have seen before curtain calls are upon us. We are stuck assembling it all in our heads as we walk out. It is a credit to both solid writing and directorial pacing.

One peeve. There was much smoking in the play. I was parked in the front row and by the end of the play felt as if my lungs had been fumigated. I’m assuming the actors were using real cigarettes, but if they weren’t, they were drawing on something equally noxious. At this point there is no excuse for using anything but fake cigarettes on stage. For the sake of the audiences later in the run, I hope management makes it stop.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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