BWW Reviews: Debutaunte Brings Texas Traditions to Red Hook
Who knew that lodged in a Red Hook warehouse is a porthole to the deep south? Mary John Frank's wild and detail-driven imagination transports participants who must be called party-goers, not audience members, to the world of Debutaunte, a world that feels as real and full-bodied as any of the high-budget immersive theater projects trending on New York streets in recent years.
Though Atelier Roquette, the abandoned ice cream-packing warehouse where Debutaunte lives for its three-week June run, is simply but tastefully adorned with decor that preserves the illusion that we are not in industrial Brooklyn, Frank's cast takes on the brunt of the work of convincing us that we are at a debutante ball. And work they do - committed to being southern belles with all too relatable flaws from start (when Josephine, the alcohol-loving rebel artist debutante smokes a cigarette outside while we wait in line) to finish (when the ball devolves into a dance party, the debutantes still performing their lady-like duty to "make sure everyone is having a good time"). Some of the debutantes even have Instagram accounts.
And what is a debutante ball without a bit of drama? Frank's exploration of debutante traditions as a site where outdated gender roles still have a comfortable home takes shape through conflicts between women. Martha McMillan, the host of the ball, pours scripted and unscripted criticisms on "her girls" when they are unladylike. The formal section of the piece (after a half hour or so of mingling) begins with CeCe, the people-pleasing, future-dietitian debutante, struggling to fit into her debutante dress as she struggles to gain her mother's approval. She wraps a duct tape corset around her body, desperately grasping at her stomach, while her mother, on the other side of the mirror, observes her own aging glamour. CeCe carries the mirror on her back as her mother struts across what has become the stage, literally shouldering the burden of the expectations once imposed on her mother and now imposed on her.
But I already know CeCe when I watch her experience this private moment of vulnerability - she has introduced herself to me, shown me her debutante bow, explained that it isn't as good as her mother's but it's getting there. This is what makes Debutaunte special - Frank weaves her piece together with intimate webs of narrative and character that create different resonances for everyone present.
Donna Fish as Diane Mullins with Elizabeth Dunn as her daughter Charlotte. Photo by Victoria Will.