Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Quick: How much thought did you put into what you are wearing right now? Of course that might depend if you are reading this in your pajamas at home, or somewhere out in public. Chances are good it also depends on whether you are a man or a woman, and your cultural identity and religious beliefs may play a part as well. Our society has deemed coverage of the human body as necessary to maintain modestythough how much coverage varies greatly among culturesas well as protection from sun, cold, biting insects, and other natural elements.
Cloth is a well researched, thoroughly entertaining and highly provocative show developed by Exposed Brick Theatre that raises questions and offers varied perspectives about the coverage of our bodies. It had a world premiere run over the weekend at the Southern Theater as part of the ArtShare program. The piece was written by Aamera Siddiqui, who was one of ten actors in the ensemble that each played a multitude of parts under the direction of Suzy Messerole. The show is constructed as a series of sketches, some short, others long, punctuated now and then with projected factoids and editorial cartoons dealing with dress codes, the tyranny of fashion, religious restrictions, and the like. It feels like something like the old "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" television show, moving quickly from one segment to the next, only while Cloth is often extremely funny, it is also dead-on serious.
One narrative line does run through Cloth: a single character who returns every fifteen or twenty minutes, performed in this production by the playwright. In the first we meet her as a young girl in an Islamic country who is very proud of her beautiful purple dress, so proud that it is that dress she wears when her family immigrates to the United States. In each successive appearance she is older and dealing with different aspects of dress as an Islamic woman in the United States. There is the first time that someone yells at her, "Go back where you came from." She is wearing a very stylish ensemble based on Islamic design, including a hijab covering her hair, and could have been walking a runway in the outfit, but that lout who heckled saw different symbolism in her fashion choice. Later, she stresses over what to wear to her citizenship exam, wanting something that cries out "she's an American!"
Other segments include a high school principal (played by the ensemble's lone male actor), two teachers and a parent devising a student dress code, two "liberated" American Muslim young women who slip out on the town in short, spangle-covered dresses, ordering cocktails; a pair of tight-fitting jeans begging not to be discarded by its owner, who is moving on to a pair of "mom jeans"; and a loud-mouthed talk show host advising woman over fifty what they should no longer be wearing (first on the list: leopard print tops). In one rapid-paced segment, cast members demonstrate absurd and archaic laws still on the books, regarding dress, such as the Colorado law that prohibits wearing a red dress after 7:00 pm, the Delaware law that prohibits driving a motor vehicle in a housecoat, the requirement in Owensboro, Kentucky, that women have their husband's permission to purchase a hat, and the law in both Rochester, Michigan and Rochester, Minnesota that states swim suits must be approved by the chief of police.
Those are some of the funnier parts of Cloth. There are also entirely serious segments, such as a woman who is beaten by police for cross dressing as a man and not adhering to the "three article rule" stating that a woman needs to wear at least three items identified as female (common in the U.S. from the end of World War II into the early 1970s.) A woman of low caste in India resorts to self-mutilation to deal with the expectation that women of her caste be bare breasted, the right to cover the breasts being reserved for women of higher stature. In another gripping segment, survivors of sexual abuse describe what they were wearing when it happened to them. An Islamic fashion show is followed by cast members spouting out Facebook and Twitter responses from people of varied walks of life around the United States.
Every one of the ensemble members were terrific. Stand-out moments, in addition to playwright Aamera Siddiqui's immigrant odyssey, include Eliza Rasheed as the low caste Indian woman, Emily Zimmer as the embattled cross dresser, and Marissa Carr in a harrowing sequence describing sexual molestation at age five. One highlight was a debate between two Muslim women, one (Eliza Rasheed) ardently supporting the French ban on the hijab, the other (Aamera Siddiqui) wearing a niqab, vehemently opposed to it. Taous Khazem was impressive as the moderator of the debate, trying to keep balance between the two articulate contestants.
Suzy Messerole directed the work, juggling its many different pieces with a firm hand so that it moved swiftly, coherently and confidently. The stagein fact the entire theater, including the lobbyhad women's garments of all styles and sizes hanging on the walls and from the ceiling, immersing the audience in the overwhelming number of choices related to the simple act of "covering up." Jesse Cogswell's lighting design helped raise and lower the levels of intensity from scene to scene.
I loved Cloth, in spite of an opening scene that seemed off-base, with Eve talking about the first act of "covering up" after being expelled from the Garden. It is a clever way to begin, but her dialogue was rambling and seemed not to be clear on its point. But once that was passed, every scene rang true with different combinations of humor, indignity and heartbreak.
If the theater gods are on the job, Exposed Brick will find a way to bring Cloth back for a longer stay. They are to be highly commended for taking on a topic so obvious, yet so rarely addressed, and for doing it with such wit, insight and talent.
Cloth, an Exposed Brick Theatre production, played December 7 - 10, 2017, as part of the ArtShare series at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. For information on ArtShare, visit southerntheater.org. For information on Exposed Brick Theatre, visit exposedbricktheatre.org.
Playwright: Aamera Siddiqui; Director: Suzy Messerole; Assistant Director: Sequoia Hauck; Scenic Design: Lauren Anderson and Alex Hathaway; Sound Design: Katie Korpi; Light Design: Jesse Cogswell; Stage Manager: Brianna McCurry.
Cast: Alex Boss, Marissa Carr, Sophia Giovanis, Taous Khazem, Symone Naya, Eliza Rasheed, Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel, Siddeeqah Shabazz, Aamera Siddiqui, and Emily Zimmer.