Cut on the bias

Only once did I own a Chanel dress. It had been stripped of its buttons and altered, but the dress itself had the undeniable whiff of early Lagerfeld for Chanel: its drop waist a nod to Coco’s first creations, and its burnished silk the blond-oak hue of a mid-century Swedish sideboard. I never wore it; it was too damaged and I, the wrong size.  But I studied it like an archeological artifact before giving it to a girl who would find a way to make its damaged parts seem part of the design.

I hadn’t thought of this dress again until Saturday night, when I caught a performance of No. 5, William Allen’s one-woman show starring Emily Spicer — the world premiere for the script, a winner of the Texas Nonprofit Theatres POPS! New Play Project. As with the prêt-à-porter dress, my initial excitement gave way to in-depth study, which revealed that essential Chanel elements had been altered to suit another’s fancy. The difference is that one was a dress, and the other, a person’s life.

As I settled into my seat, appropriately canny French music played on a loop. The stage — a three-quarters-round, which requires performer, director, and technical staff to be conscious of the three-dimensional view — revealed a boudoir-like studio designed by Alfy Valdez, with three mismatched mannequins, a dress form, and a chaise lounge tacked with silk (you could see where they … stapled it?). Three sketches, ostensibly of a Chanel design, dominated the background. But Coco Chanel didn’t draw; so who made these? A too-tall cutting table anchored stage left, while tucked center-right of two backdrops (painted black, but left unfinished on the backsides — très annoying) was a tea trolley that didn’t match anything else.

Spicer announced her entrance with a cabaret song, sung in-character flat and loud, which she accompanied on a piano placed away from the stage proper. It’s a dramatic yet seemingly impromptu appearance that effectively introduces Allen’s framing device — an intimate interview with the aging Chanel, the audience as silent reporter.

The one-wo/man séance — theater staple and tour-de-force — is difficult for even a seasoned performer, and this one runs an hour and a half, no breaks, requiring Spicer to be on point for 90 minutes straight. Unfortunately, the first thing I noticed about the character (in addition to her tight marcels and lack of a Coco tan) was the ill-fitting approximation of a Chanel suit. When she turned her back to stage right, Spicer’s lovely figure appeared thick and uncomfortable. Worse, she couldn’t walk properly, nor could she put her hands into her pockets without the skirt widening weirdly at the hip.

Director Laurie Dietrich seemingly took no consideration of the horrid suit, or the actress wearing it. Spicer was allowed only four bits of stage business — draping a blouse, lighting cigarettes, pouring brandy from a (cheap) decanter, or lounging on the (tacked) bench. Occasionally, though, Spicer broke the fourth wall and talked directly to the audience, beguiling us, her models. Otherwise, the space and props were merely obvious tools to facilitate Spicer’s transitions — an issue, too, when Spicer would pause and give a long “but,” to allow her to remember her lines or segue into the next set piece.

Which brings us to the play itself. Allen’s script employs well-known material (especially familiar to that night’s audience, which was full of fashion aficionados of all stripes) and a straightforward historical arc, but the light and music meant to indicate time periods were confusingly mushy, except for when Chanel is on trial for collaboration with the Nazis. I couldn’t tell if Spicer’s monologue — a retread of Chanel’s fashion creations as a counterpoint to her love affairs — was meant as fact or hyperbole. If you mount a play about one of the 20th century’s most formidable characters, and make no use of postmodern masking gestures that would allow for fooling with place, character, and time, you’d better have accuracy on your side. When Allen’s Chanel claimed to have created the woman’s suit, or pioneered black as a style, I bit my pinkie to keep from yelping. When the script deviated into an apologist rant about Chanel’s Nazi lover, when she asserted that World War II devastated France more than World War I — and especially when Spicer produced a bloody pink button purportedly from Jackie Kennedy’s suit — I wanted to throw up my hands and stomp out. The character’s megalomania, or clunky anachronisms? It was impossible to tell.

A biography or notes about the playwright’s creative process might have helped me understand Allen’s vision — as would a more consistent accent. Spicer careened between a decent approximation of Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles, that weird transcontinental thing all actresses affected in 1940s film, and — finally — outright mumbling.

No. 5 is new, and as such it deserves the kindness offered to new things, but an audience can make only so many allowances for poor construction. A departing patron said it best, to no one in particular, en français: “It is a good thing she is dead.”

And she wasn’t mumbling. •


No. 5
Through Mar 15
The Cellar Theater

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