nytheatre.com review by Kelly Aliano
June 16, 2008
Clubbed Thumb's current production, Vendetta Chrome, written by Sally Oswald and directed by Alexis Poledouris, is a profound and hilarious look at the life of young Miss Vendetta Chrome as she begins attending a somewhat bizarre school for girls. When we first meet Vendetta, she is about to start school at an all-girl academy which her father has recently purchased and of which he is now, therefore, headmaster. Vendetta hopes that her father's status will ensure her popularity with the other students. However, the other girls are suspicious of Vendetta, believing that she has an all-too-easy life.
Unfortunately, Vendetta's life is not as rosy as the others may believe it to be. Her father desires to marry Vendetta's elocution teacher, Mrs. Bosworth, and also happens to owe $200,000 in debt to some mobsters. Vendetta hopes to find a way to put a stop to her father's impending marriage—as she is unaware of the unpaid sum, the nuptials seem to be her most pressing crisis—but she is unable to execute a plan to do so. Vendetta's life begins to change, hopefully for the better, quite possibly for the worse, and certainly for the weirder, when a mysterious woman appears, claiming to be able to tell Vendetta's fortune.
From here, the plot of the play unfolds almost like a well-made melodrama, with obscured parentage, the revelation of multiple secrets, and the unmasking of a hidden crime. The fortune the woman reveals appears to relate to Vendetta's life—particularly her family history—and plays out as scenes between this woman and a woman who bears an oddly coincidental resemblance to Mrs. Bosworth. This is consistent with the tale that is being unveiled, and with a significant convention of the piece—one where actors play more than one role. The cast features only one man, Sam Breslin Wright, who brilliantly portrays Algernon Chrome, but the story involves other male characters (notably the men to whom Algernon owes money) played by members of the female ensemble. The young women who double in these roles, Lisa Rafaela Clair, Caroline Tamas, and Jenny Seastone Stern, so completely transform into these male identities that it takes a long moment before one realizes that it is actually women playing these parts.
This doubling of roles is simultaneously a clever way for the company to keep the cast small and for the play to emphasize its central theme of gender performance. Underneath the witty humor, the play operates as a shrewd study of how one's gender identity can be constructed, and, additionally, can be performed. For example, the girls are all learning poses iconic of how a proper young woman should look when faced with certain emotions. On the other hand, these proper-young-ladies-in-training are forbidden to enact the more "arousing" poses (such as the "dancing girl") and are forced to play basketball in secret. The other possible future that seems to be suggested for these girls is as sexual objects; Mrs. Bosworth hopes to sell Vendetta to Algernon's creditors as payment for his debt.
Despite this, the entire play operates as ingenious subterfuge to the traditional "virgin or whore" constructions set out for female identity. Mrs. Bosworth asserts herself as the powerful one in her relationship: not only is her fiancé confined to a wheelchair, but we see him staying at home, slaving in front of the oven preparing a pheasant, while she not only goes to work but also envisions and initiates a plot to settle his debt. In a world almost entirely devoid of men, the young schoolgirls are still able to become involved in romantic complications among themselves. The play is able to present these flirtations without ever coming across as a heavy-handed feminist or gay work. We see a patriarchal world, but one where women prove their capability to withstand life without the direct support of a male counterpart.
The entire company is excellent, and the direction keeps this play from becoming overly perplexing. There are moments when the plot is hard to follow, but the confusion is consistently cleared up quite quickly. Overall, it is a truly enjoyable performance. This idea of "performance" is integral to the piece itself—this is very much a play about performing. The girls are being taught to perform emotions, the fortune cannot be told but must instead be acted out, and gender is very much a construct that is both portrayed based on the norms dictated by society's demands and railed against by subtle acts of rebellion like girls hiking up their skirts in order to play basketball. The play also proves to be a hilarious way to spend an evening. Clubbed Thumb has constructed a truly great play—one that is both about something important while still being incredibly entertaining.