BWW Review: Children Lead Innovocative Theatre's THE HUNDRED DRESSES at Stageworks - A Play That Tackles Bullying and the Dangers of Inaction
We sadly haven't evolved as much as we'd like to think. We see a rally on the TV this past July, with crowds of people shouting "Send them back!" directed toward American congresswomen of different colors and faiths. We see divisiveness raised to an art form every day, where fellow citizens of 2019 treat "otherness" as a problem instead of a cause for celebration of the melting pot that we call the United States. We see the toxic flames of xenophobia being fanned for political purposes, stirring up the ire of certain segments of society while those unaffected either sit silently or shout helplessly. The people caught up in all of this, those who cheer the rhetoric of wrath and those who say nothing against it, need to see THE HUNDRED DRESSES, the latest powerful production from Innovocative Theater in partnership with Stageworks. (Above all others, however, it is children that need to experience this show the most.)
Based on Eleanor Estes' classic children's book and written by Mary Hall Surface, THE HUNDRED DRESSES' storyline--bullying and the dreaded consequences of silent inaction--is still relevant today. And not just on the level of what so many teens and pre-teens are going through, but on a national level, where bullying has no age limit. It's a universal story, where the children shall lead by example to accept "otherness," those outsiders that we cannot understand and therefore condemn either by words or silent shunning. That's why it's a perfect fit for Innovocative, the two-year-old professional theatre company that tackles timely, thought-provoking issues. This is their fifth show, after a decent Proof, a strong but didactic Keely & Du, the mixed Ugly Lies the Bone, and the powerfully chilling Columbinus. They keep pushing the envelope, and hopefully local audiences will keep attending, keep being challenged, provoked, and ultimately enlightened.
The premise of THE HUNDRED DRESSES is rather simple: It's 1938, and children in a small Connecticut town bully an outsider--Wanda, a Polish-American little girl--to the point where her family leaves for the big city. The title comes from a classroom assignment, where Wanda turns in drawings of a hundred dresses. One of the girls, Maddie, feeling guilty over her silence during her friends' bullying and name-calling, wants to make things right but doesn't get a chance to. Early on we wonder if Wanda is a ghost of some kind, she's so silent like a specter, always on the outside like Gabe in Next to Normal. No one notices her or befriends her. When she tries to involve herself with her peers, they wind up taunting her with chants and games, laughing at her hard-to-pronounce last name, and dismissing her. Bullying takes on many forms, many methods. Maddie has the conscience to do the right thing but doesn't intervene right away. (She even gets targeted at one point because she's also low on the socioeconomic scale.) Wanda leaves for good, and Maddie is haunted by her inability to have done something (we even see some of her fantasies, like seeing herself as a superhero). THE HUNDRED DRESSES asks the question: What is worse--doing the wrong thing, or doing nothing to stop the wrong thing from happening when you are able to?
It's a question all of us find ourselves currently facing in one way or another. Where do you fit in? Do you stand up to the bullies of the world, or do you stay silent?
Thank God director Dawn Truax has cast actual children in this show, and not adults or older teens playing children (as sometimes is the case). Children currently live this world, still, especially those in middle school where bullying becomes more and more prevalent. (It may become more subtle the older we get, but that doesn't make it any easier.) These youngsters can connect with the message better than anyone.
And the students cast here are just wonderful, full of energy and verve.
Georgia Grenon is quite gregarious and real as Maddie, the central figure who represents all of us--all of us with good intentions. She's very natural onstage, an adult-level performance by a child. As Wanda, Emery Wynne brings out the quiet "otherness," that intangible quality, a mystery of sorts, that can't be deciphered by the kids. We see her yearning to be a part of their world, and ache at the reality that she faces.
Madison LeVine is a standout as Peggy, the loudest of the bullying youths, her forced cackles echoing throughout. (For a pop culture reference, she reminds me of Judy Hensler on Leave it to Beaver.) But there's a judiciousness in the script, and a character that we worry will go off the rails actually turns out quite decent. LeVine's Peggy proves that all of us, even the most vocal and seemingly uncaring, have the ability to be redeemed.
Alec Anderson shows great promise and ability as Willie, perhaps the one youth who will always remain unchanged in his ways. I love how he doesn't even want to glance at a letter that the other kids are very interested in; his apathy is spot-on for so many kids that age. Preston Maeda is a hoot as the very smart Jack, a wily smile on his face as if he knows some secret that no one else does.
My favorite in the cast is Alyssa Black-Diamond as the diminutive Cecile. She certainly dons the best outfits, and she carries herself like a pint-sized actress on Oscar night. Her comic timing is a thing of beauty, and she has a way of owning the stage that is quite rare in someone so young.
Blake Smallen does memorable work as Jake, Wanda's more aggressive brother. Madeleine Krebs shows a lot of heart and correctly underplays the part of the children's teacher, Miss Mason (it's a great contrast to the kids more overenthusiastic presences). Larry Corwin is sturdy and strong as two very distinct parts--Wanda's father and Mr. Svenson, the latter an old man who the children find quite scary (like Boo Radley in another classic work, much of the children's fears are unfounded). Staci Sabarsky, who is also the Innovocative Theatre's Artistic Director, is down to earth and quite real as Maddie's understanding mom.
The adults are all fine, but make no mistake, the show belongs to the child actors.
Deftly directed by Ms. Truax, the show is well-paced despite so many set changes. I first wondered if they should have the set pieces in place the whole time, unmoving, and create time and place with mere lighting, but there are so many costume changes that I guess this would be impossible. But for a while there, it seemed like the show was nothing but set changes, with the cast moving large wooden boxes from here to there, there to here. There were so many blackouts and set changes that I wondered if the title THE HUNDRED DRESSES should be changed to The 100 Moving Boxes.
The young actors do admirable work, but sometimes you could see some of them mouth the lines of their fellow actors. And they have obviously been taught well in theatre classes, but one thing that is ingrained in young actors--don't turn your back to the audience--can create a problem. At one point a young actor crosses the stage and turns in an awkward way so that their back is never to the audience. This is where naturalism works best, and if the actor finds his or her back to the audience momentarily, it works better rather than calling attention to itself in the intimate surroundings of the Stageworks stage.
Sometimes the slide projections (by Jake LaMay) work, and other times they seemed rather meh. I am very happy that they used a slide of the correct 48-star American flag, but I don't know why they chose the 1947 official portrait of FDR for the same classroom (when the action of the play takes place in the 1930's). There are far better portraits of FDR to choose from, paintings that would be appropriate for the pre-World War 2 President that wouldn't need a time machine to make sense. The Steamboat Willie scenes worked, even though the early Disney short came out 10 years before the action of THE HUNDRED DRESSES, and there are certainly better examples of Mickey Mouse in 1938 (the first year he was without a tail): Boat Builders, The Whalers, and Brave Little Tailor, to name a few. But perhaps copyright is an issue here, so Steamboat Willie it is.
I still find myself torn when it comes to the various original videos played throughout. I like the black and white video archival footage that the children watch at one point and love that the narrator sounded just like Wallace Shawn. But I am still unsure if the video of Maddie as a superhero or as a Charlie McCarthy dummy quite works. There is a reason theater is stronger than video and film, and perhaps seeing Maddie perform these fantastical moments, all in her imagination, would be stronger live onstage. As it stands, they look like something videotaped for a well-edited middle school news program. Also, on a side note, it would have been a much bolder choice for these videos to have been in black and white (since most films at the time were not yet in color).
But THE HUNDRED DRESSES is an important work that needs to be seen by children and adults alike. Innovocative Theatre has once again started a very important dialogue, and if you go on August 4th or August 11th, please stay for a very informative post-performance talkback (from groups like Hillsborough County Anti-Bullying Advisory Committee, the Centre 4 Girls, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Safe and Sound Hillsborough).
After the show, I couldn't get that famous quote attributed to Edmund Burke out of my head: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing." I guess, as THE HUNDRED DRESSES proves, it's true for good little girls, too.
Innovocative Theatre's THE HUNDRED DRESSES runs thru August 11th at Stageworks in the Channelside District.