Talented artists can make amazing things out of virtually nothing. A sculptor infuses rock with vibrant life. A painter pushes pigment around a canvas and remarkable new vistas open. And actress Mary Sue Carroll uses a slight vehicle like "Full Gallop" (now showing at the Barksdale Theatre) to cast an enchanting spell that can captivate and charm a patient theatergoer.
And I mention patience because it requires some to make it through to the good parts of "Full Gallop." The show presents a slender portrait of Diana Vreeland, who flamboyantly reigned as the "high priestess of fashion" while she was the editor of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue magazines. Vreeland was a bold and effusive personality who made a habit out of seizing life by the reins and giving it a good strong kick. But it's hard to develop a whole play using only the forcefulness of a single personality. For the show to succeed, ultimately it has to make us care about either Vreeland or her greatest passion: fashion.
Surprisingly, it is fashion that we are eventually made to care about. Through Vreeland's exhortations that "fashion is history" and her spirited explication of the joys of blue jeans, we come to understand that fashion is not about the clothes people wear but what they do when they are wearing them. Vreeland uses grisly anecdotes about a royal homicide and an editor's suicide to illustrate the importance of fashion in matters of life and death. But while we come to understand her work, her life remains elusive. Only a minuscule interlude where she talks about her mother calling her "extremely ugly" and an abbreviated description of her husband's bout with cancer give us even the slightest insight into Vreeland's inner life.
The barely-there action of the play involves Vreeland preparing her apartment for a dinner party. After noodling about in the first act, the show finally comes into focus after intermission, when Vreeland provides more details about her groundbreaking work at Vogue. Through it all, Carroll is a joy to watch, as she captures Vreeland in all of her extravagant, flashy and wildly gesticulating glory. Several scenes with her on the phone are particularly impressive, as she convinces us that there actually is someone else on the line. Carroll uses every tool available to her, from the velvet huskiness of her voice to the sinewy flexibility of her body, to fill her character with a winning joie de vivre.
Amplifying Carroll's character is a lushly appointed set by scenic designer Jason Winebarger, dominated by deep red, the color Vreeland calls "the great clarifier." Providing a comic counterpoint is the French housekeeper Yvonne, never seen but often heard through an intercom, deadpanning monosyllabic responses to Vreeland's questions. Director Ernie McClintock gives Carroll plenty of business to do as she flitters about the set, but the play never becomes about anything more than Vreeland telling her story.
Though "Full Gallop" often just trots along, it's a pleasant enough ride just the same. And with a rider like Carroll in control, there are plenty of entertaining diversions along the
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