Rational Insanity

Chanel looks at fashion as a form of madness; 2 listens to the words of a sweet-talking Nazi

The maxim is ideal for the world of fashion: Perfection can best be discovered through reduction. As voiced by Coco Chanel--or actor Jaidee Forman speaking as Chanel from the Red Eye stage--this principle is less about the sex appeal of starvation than the flawlessness that can be achieved through stripping away excess. The sentiment may not be historically accurate: A press release for the play Coco has Forman explaining that the text of this one-woman show is "a theatrical presentation of my speculations about who I think [Chanel] was." But the entirety of this production seems seized by this minimalist passion. The stage, for example, consists of a curtain wrapped around a microphone, a swath of white cloth hanging from the rafters, an oversized letter C, and nothing else. As Forman performs, she often assumes poses that seem drawn from the pages of Forties haute couture magazines, and remains motionless but for a slight tapping of a toe or a stroking gesture with a hand.

Further, Forman seems to have gone through her script and stripped it bare, tossing out huge chunks of biography. This is not your usual one-woman show, in which an actor dramatically recounts the details of an extraordinary life. Details are scarce here: Forman touches on such things as a dead lover in Chanel's past and the enormous disappointment the designer felt at having her designs for Gone With the Wind rejected by Hollywood. But even these scenes, the play's closest renditions of straight biography, are curiously bald and abstracted. While talking about Gone With the Wind Forman wraps the hanging cloth around her torso and mimes the act of Scarlett O'Hara digging a turnip out of the parched soil outside Tara. Then, she wraps the hanging cloth tighter. She now repeats the performance, but the cloth constrains her so that she can hardly reach the ground to pull a turnip from it. Then she wraps the cloth tighter still, and now her Scarlett O'Hara seems trapped in a straitjacket, lunging pathetically toward a turnip she can no longer reach.

Although Forman wrote this show on her own and developed it outside the auspices of 15 Head, the theater company in which Forman is an artistic associate, this production is presented by the company and directed by Julia Fischer, the company's cofounder. And it's no surprise, as even if Coco did not bear the 15 Head logo on its program, the arch, elegant stylization of the production would feel familiar. 15 Head's most recent play, The Insatiate Countess, likewise seemed built around subtle, careful gestures and near-bare stages. Countess featured stylized love scenes in which lovers passed their heads and arms through harsh beams of light while muttering sweet nothings to each other. Forman also finds herself in harsh beams of light, and also finds herself muttering, but there is little love in this story. "Lord knows I wanted love," she declares, "but the moment I had to choose between a man and my dresses, I chose my dresses."

"Whatever the fashion, a woman must follow it, even if she hates it": Jaidee Forman as Coco Chanel
"Whatever the fashion, a woman must follow it, even if she hates it": Jaidee Forman as Coco Chanel

This is fashion as madness. To the canned music of mid-20th-century fashion shows, Forman dispenses pointers about proper dress. And while some of her talk sounds quite reasonable (including a lucid explanation of the logic behind Chanel's distinctive dress designs), other comments are utterly balmy. "Whatever the fashion, a woman must follow it," Forman advises us, "even if she hates it." Forman's Coco Chanel is canny, though--she seems aware of how absurd she must sound, but shrugs it off. "My neurosis may have turned to psychosis," she declares in a tone of voice that suggests that the difference is irrelevant.

I suspect most of us, upon our death, will have our life whittled down to something rather plain. The words at our gravesite will, undoubtedly, be something along the lines of "this was a person who valued work and family," or some such nonsense. But Coco Chanel's life was not plain, and Forman pares her story down to three themes, to which the actor returns throughout the one-hour performance: Romance is painful, boredom is intolerable, and fashion is endlessly fascinating. They are fine thoughts with which to sum up a life.

 

Playwright Romulus Linney has taken a more straightforward approach to biography in writing about Hermann Wilhelm Goering in 2, now making its area premiere at the Theatre in the Round. He set the play at Nuremberg in the last days of the Nazi Reich Marshall's life, as he sits on trial for crimes against humanity. The ashes of World War II are an endlessly fertile soil for dramatists: Linney is not the first writer to turn to Nuremberg to try to untangle the mysteries that can drive nations to commit atrocities. No doubt other writers will follow. Alas, genocide itself remains an endlessly contemporary topic for examination.

And Linney has found a good central character in Goering, who was a charming, puzzling, contradictory personality. At first, director G. J. Clayburn's decision to cast Bob Malos as Goering in this production is puzzling. Even after a starvation diet at Nurenberg, Goering was an oversized man, with pasty, pretty-boy features. Malos, by comparison, is fit and powerful-looking, with pointed features and a shock of dark hair, and does not resemble Goering in the least. But no matter, this is theater, where if you point to a thing onstage and declare it to be something else--well, it is then that other thing. And once we accept Malos as Goering, the logic behind his casting becomes evident.

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