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Review: ‘Full Gallop’ At WaterTower Theatre

by Jerome Weeks 19 Aug 2014 9:07 AM

Full Gallop finds the great fashion empress Diana Vreeland just after she lost her empire – she’d been fired from Vogue. In the one-woman play at WaterTower Theatre, Diana Sheehan portrays a taut, vivid Vreeland.


edit sheehanDiana Vreeland ruled the roost as the leading fashion editor of the mid-20th century. As the head of Vogue, she was as much a celebrity and industry leader as any dress designer or super model she championed. Then she was fired. A one-woman show about Vreeland is playing in Addison at the WaterTower Theatre, and in his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says it’s much like Vreeland herself:  bright, vivid and troubling.

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The play Full Gallop finds Diana Vreeland at low ebb — adrift in the wake of her dismissal from Vogue when she was 68 years old. Vreeland edited the magazine throughout the ’60s and edited Harper’s Bazaar for 25 years before that. She discovered a young Lauren Bacall, advised Jackie Kennedy in the White House. This is the first time in 35 years Vreeland hasn’t been a trendsetting power in American culture.

For Vreeland, the fashion industry wasn’t just a peddler of pricey garb or disposable trinkets. It captured the zeitgeist, it was life and expression, fantasy and energy. It was certainly her life and energy. In Full Gallop, in the middle of a story, Vreeland will suddenly pop off: “Fashion is in the daily air. It comes, it keeps coming . . . .  It’s all proportion and line, that’s all fashion is, line — and dash. Style is the great thing. Oh, you gotta have style. It helps you get up in the morning. It helps you get down the stairs.”

But Vreeland’s career in fabulousness didn’t make her the subject of Mark Hampton and Mary-Louise Wilson’s play (which debuted off-Broadway in 1995 as a vehicle for Wilson). Vreeland was a dramatic and entertaining character  herself — as stylized as a Richard Avedon photo. She looked like an aged Kabuki doll with her black-lacquered hair and scarlet lipstick (she adored geisha costumes). She had a flair for the theatrical and enjoyed a thoroughly well-connected life – from meeting Nijinsky when she was young to partying with Andy Warhol when she was much older. As is sometimes the case with the well-born, she also had the vaguest notions about paying bills. Or where her kitchen was or just how eccentric and dictatorial she was with her assistants.

At the WaterTower Theatre, Terry Martin’s set design simply but stylishly evokes Vreeland’s famous, deep-red apartment and its chinoiserie. Played by Sheehan, Vreeland stalks restlessly around it, pinging from one topic to another, namedropping all the way, patching together dinner party plans while playing jazz records (Kelsey Leigh Ervi did the sound design). She even pauses to ponder, however briefly, the sudden wreckage of her life. After her dismissal, she jetted to Tunisia to recover with an old friend, swim in her pool — only to have the friend suggest, “’Diana, there’s something I want to tell you and I think you ought to think about it. Your future’s behind you.’ ” Vreeland yelps, “Your future’s behind you!? I nearly drowned, I was simply furious. What a thing to say!”

Sheehan is captivating to watch here. She’s a past master at playing neurotic grande dames — in Grey Gardens at WaterTower or the Uptown Players’ Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Under Martin’s able direction, she crackles with taut energy — more so than Vreeland did herself (if Vreeland’s screen appearance in the 2011 documentary, The Eye Has to Travel, is any indication).

Sheehan’s snap is all to the good: Full Gallop needs some urgency, an extra jolt of psychodrama. Solo bios like this often catch their subject at a crucial point. Think of Tru, Jay Presson Allen’s play about Truman Capote. Capote has been rejected by the high-society women who’ve been his drinking buddies and the secret inspirations for his scathing fiction. Now they’ve found out and they’ve dumped him. Capote eventually musters the will to face them, but we also know he’ll never write anything of consequence again.

Full Gallop doesn’t play at the same high stakes. A few minutes into it, Vreeland is already fielding offers of a new job. Writers Hampton and Wilson don’t give us a crisis of character; they unwrap a bright, vivid bauble.

It’s also true that solo biodramas, by their nature, don’t offer a perspective outside the subject. Everything is filtered through her — and when it comes to self-reflection, there are Manolo Blahnik high heels more introspective than Vreeland. We’re led to view her later career running the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in precisely the same way she did: It was her table-turning comeback, a capstone to everything she’s done. Because of it, her influence, her entire history, can be seen today in the way fashion’s gleam shines on upscale consumerism, the way luxury products are designed and hawked.

That’s because at the Met, Vreeland did something more than generate attention. She grabbed the opportunity to elevate fashion to a spotlit position in America’s leading palace of high art. She transformed the Met in the process, lending it new glamor. Wisely — and very characteristic of her — Vreeland set out to liberate the Met and its costumes from their dowdy, dusty glass cases, in effect, liberate a museum’s collection from history itself.

At the same time, many in the museum world saw — and still see — that transformation as deeply flawed — for good reasons (consider Rogue’s Gallery or, if you’re a glutton for punishment, Selling Culture). Vreeland was never trained as a professional curator. She brought together the Reagan White House, Hollywood, New York society, media and fashion royalty to create blockbuster shows — shows the Met greedily profited from. But while the crowds and the press may not have cared much about anything like conflicts of interest, Vreeland’s friends — those fashion designers who bankrolled her shows — profited handsomely from them.

This kind of ‘synergy’ between art and commerce seems a common practice today. To Vreeland, it all was like a Diane von Furstenburg wrap dress, a form as fundamental as a toga, as modern as a mini-skirt, as simple as a slipknot: She twirled together money, politics, media celebrity, art history — and voila, everyone profited.

Everyone, that is, but a museum’s reputation and purpose. Non-profit museums are not supposed to be hired out as ad agencies to promote your friends’ product lines. Museums are supposed to embody, highlight and preserve cultural significance  — and not just spotlight whoever can pony up the cash. That tends to sully the museum’s autonomy in reclaiming and studying history, to sully its non-profit purpose in educating the tax-paying public — which, after all, does help pay for the museum, too. Vreeland brought welcome verve to the entire study of fashion, but one suspects her disregard of all these other principles was akin to her disregard of overdue bills or whether there were any nibbles around for her dinner guests. Those were just details; she was after the big sweep, the next transformative trend.

Vreeland was one-of-a-kind. She was on the hunt for beauty, for color, for the unique, the striking — for life itself. She went wherever her sharp, insatiable eye led her, whether that was across social classes or native cultures, unpleasant facts or professional practices.

It sounds wearisomely Puritanical and unfashionable to say so, but while style may help you get up in the morning and down the stairs, fashion is still hard-cash commerce.

It’ll happily sell you the same old air you breathe, and tell you it’s the latest thing.