“Mysterious and evocative”: these were the words that Spooky Action Theater’s Artistic Director Richard Henrich used to describe their production of Nelson Rodrigues’ The Wedding Dress. And after racking my brain, I’ve been unable to come up with a better description. The Wedding Dress is a beautiful piece of theater, with striking image after striking image parading across the stage as the plot slowly coalesces over the course of the evening.
Spooky Action’s production is the US premiere of The Wedding Dress, some seventy years after its original premiere in Rio de Janeiro. The basic idea is fairly simple: after being hit by a car, Alaide (Mundy Spears) relives memories from her life as she slowly dies from her injuries. But that’s the last time that the word “simple” can be applied to the play. Rodrigues’s genius is in the way he complicates that basic story. It’s as if Alaide’s life – her memories, her fantasies, her fears – is a length of thread or coil of rope, suddenly twisted and piled up at the moment of impact. Alaide attempts to work through the mess chronologically, and fails again and again. Under the guidance of Madame Clessi (Dane Figueroa Edidi), a famed prostitute murdered years before Alaide’s story even begins, Alaide attempts to make sense of her memories and experiences. These primarily focus on her marriage to Pedro (Randolph Curtis Rand) and their relationship with her sister Lucia (Tuyet Thi Pham). Director Rebecca Holderness has taken Rodrigues’s script and turned it into a vibrant, complex web.
The set, designed by Vicki R. Davis, is the perfect canvas for such a unique piece of theatre. The stage is primarily white and bare, with clusters of detail. In one space, a table and chair. In another, a statue on the wall. The center of the space is dominated by a jagged sculpture of metal pipes. The overall sense is of rooms without walls, a visual representation of Alaide’s failure to structure her memories. The blankness is complemented by impressive lighting and costume work by Maja E. White and Erik Teague. A man in a white suit crosses through a dark room; women in red dresses slash their way through a white room; black figures in a red room. The show produces striking image after striking image, with the actors moving like clockwork through complex shifts in scene and character.
If there’s a weakness to the production it’s in the characterization, itself a perverse consequence of the fact that the actors meet the demands of the script so well. Ensemble members are listed in the program with a role or two to their credit, but that doesn’t even begin to get at the amount of work they do over the course of the night. Characters are drawn in broad strokes because there isn’t time to do anything else before the actors are needed elsewhere. Alaide’s father (Frank Britton) is charmingly frustrated with the practical difficulties caused by family drama; her mother (Sue Struve) is in the thick of that drama but does little but announce her own impatience with the mess. Rafael Sebastian Medina makes a particular impression as Madame Clessi’s lover, a schoolboy with tragically romantic notions of love. But we know much less about the schoolboy than we do about the situation he exists in. Like the set, costumes, and lighting, the cast is there to illustrate Alaide’s story instead of telling their own. The rest of the ensemble (Michael Kevin Darnall, Stefanie Garcia, Aniko Olah) also have their moments of impact, but they’re painting scenes, not building characters.
The main cast aren’t immune to the issue. Rand’s Pedro is the hardest hit, constantly shifting between the various versions of the man that inhabit Alaide’s memories. It’s a schizophrenic performance and the obvious skill with which it’s done doesn’t make it any easier to understand Pedro. Alaide herself shifts from scared to seductive to dismissive in the space of a single line, while her sister remains an image more than she does a person. By the end of the night I still wasn’t sure if I felt sympathy for any of the three lovers. It’s a frustrating experience at times, where so much talent and effort is clearly being placed into making sure that the characters remain elusive. The plot untangles, but the characters never quite do.
There’s a shining star in The Wedding Dress‘s firmament, and that’s Dane Figueroa Edidi as Madame Clessi. Orson Welles had some insights about roles like this: when someone else on stage spends that much time building you up before you even appear, half the work is done for you. Edidi could simply coast on Alaide’s adulation, but she gives us much more than that. Clessi is dead before the rest of the characters are born, thanks to Edidi’s performance she feels the most alive. Clessi is a no-nonsense guide when Alaide’s attention wanders; she’s charmingly vulnerable when her own story becomes too painful to bear. And without the inconsistencies of Alaide’s memories affecting her portrayal, Clessi is also a much deeper and more consistent character than the rest. Her turns seem to be the result of a complex personality rather than the vagaries of recollection.
With The Wedding Dress, Spooky Action have taken a challenging piece and used it to make a bold, impressionistic statement about memory, identity, and desire. The piece can be challenging – even frustrating – at times, but it’s a fantastic demonstration of a company choosing their priorities and pursuing them to the utmost. The characters may fade from your memory, but the images will stick with you for a long time.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Wedding Dress plays through March 9, 2014 at Universalist National Memorial Church – 1810 16th St. NW in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at 202-248-0301, or purchase them online.
Meet The Cast and Director of Spooky Action Theater’s ‘The Wedding Dress’: Part 1: Meet Playwright Nelson Rodrigues by Luís Artur Nunes.
Meet The Cast and Director of Spooky Action Theater’s ‘The Wedding Dress’: Part 2: Meet Director Rebecca Holderness by Joel Markowitz.
Meet The Cast and Director of Spooky Action Theater’s ‘The Wedding Dress’: Part 3: Meet Dane Edidi by Joel Markowitz.