Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Metamorphoses
The long gestation and many hands and voices that created Velvet Swing have yielded an exciting new work that is provocative, entertaining, timely, and ingenious both stylistically and in drawing connections between a sordid century-old scandal and today's obsession with celebrity news and tabloid headlines. Velvet Swing is the true story of Evelyn Nesbit. You may know here as a minor character in the book, film, and stage musical Ragtime. Born in the 1880s to a poor family, as a child she becomes a highly sought after commercial artist's model. By the turn of the century her face was emblazoned on merchandise of every kind, epitomizing the ideal of youthful feminine beauty.
Still poor, however, Evelyn used her famous face to find work as a Broadway showgirl, where she attracted the attention of two men: Stanford White, famed architect and socialite, and Harry K. Thaw, mentally unstable son of a Pittsburgh family made newly rich from coal and railroads. The suave White groomed Evelyn to trust him, then seduced her in a fabulous penthouse atop one of his buildings where a red velvet swing hung two stories down from the ceiling. Evelyn was 15 or 16 and White was 47.
Thaw aggressively pursued Evelyn as well, his offers more honorable, but his coarse and belligerent manner put her off. Still, she would never wind up with White, who was not only married but had numerous other teenage mistresses secreted around the city, so Evelyn finally gave in and marries Thaw. By then, however, Thaw had learned about White's despoilment of his beloved and vowed to ensure White would never get near Evelyn againan obsession that led to Thaw murdering White and facing murder charges in what became known as "the trial of the century." The public followed it with the same rapt attention as the O.J. Simpson trial, melodramatic headlines pouring out of the courtroom. More than for her beauty or questionable talent on stage, Evelyn became best-known for being in the middle of this sordid affair, the girl on the red velvet swing, setting the mold for that great American phenomena, a celebrity who is famous for being famous.
Evelyn's relationships with both men, her notoriety, Thaw's trial and its outcomethe first ever case of innocence by virtue of "temporary insanity"along with her ongoing attempts to reinvent her life in the public eye until her death in 1967, are all well documented, so a mere dramatization of the story would be a simple affair. What Umbrella Collective adds to Velvet Swing to makes it so fascinating, and also highly theatrical, is to cast not one, but five Evelyn Nesbits.
All dressed in lacy white, designed by Josie Everett, like turn of the century chorines caught in their backstage dressing room, at times the five Evelyns performed in unison, emphasizing a strong uncontestable aspect of the story. At other times they competed for attention as conflicting feelings, or memories as to what actually happened, keeping in mind she was at times drugged, at other times beaten, so she really was often unsure. The different voices sometimes argued over whose memories were correct, whose feelings more compelling, while at other times they almost amused one another, as if Evelyn enjoyed her disparate voices making her a more interesting whole than any of these focused parts.
Each of the five actresses brought her own flair to Evelyn, and they played off each other with humor, each having sympathy for the others' afflictions. They also each played the other characters who inhabit Evelyn's tale, mostly portrayed as caricatures that felt appropriate given the ballyhoo world in which Evelyn lived. Among them, Mickaylee Shaughnessy offered a frightening take on Harry K. Thaw, Jessie Scarborough-Ghent masked Stanford White's malevolence in a haze of gentility, and Natavia Lewis drew out the pathos in Evelyn's widowed mother.
Michelle Hernick was the sixth performer on stage, accompanying the action almost continuously on an upright piano, most of it in a ragtime vein, and throwing in a full-blown musical number, "No Man's Momma," that provided a sample of Evelyn's meager skills as a stage performer, but was a hoot as framed by the show's directors Megan Clark and Alana Horton. Clark and Horton made astute judgments as to how much silliness to allow before pulling back the reins and reminding us how brutal a life Evelyn lived.
Throughout the show there were pauses when a character referred to contemporary terminology for the abuse rendered by both Thaw and White, the psychological understanding of victim-abuser relationships, and the legal constraints in effect, only to be reminded by another that it was 1906, and none of these understandings or laws existed. Heck, women did not yet have the vote, nor were they allowed to serve on juries. And Harry K. Thaw's trial for murder was the first to admit women journalists in the courtroom, known as "sob sisters" for their overly melodramatic reporting style.
The relevance of Evelyn Nesbit's life was easily made evident, given the continued revelations of the abuse of women by men who yield great power, and the abuse of children by menand womenwho occupied positions of trust in their communities. We have laws against these behaviors, if it can be proven they occurred, but only recently have begun to forge the social mettle to bring perpetrators to justice, and establishing new norms where such behavior is not tolerated. At the same time, our society's fascination with celebrity life, with a fixation on the tawdry underside of the rich and famous, can be traced back to Evelyn Nesbit and the trial of the century.
Velvet Swing played only a handful of performances, gone too soon, but Umbrella Collective has in the past revived some of their productions. Hopefully, Velvet Swing will return so a larger audience can take in the insights and provocations imbedded in the play, and to absorb the rich artistry borne out of the company's collaborative process.
Velvet Swing played April 5, 2019 through April 27, 2019, at Bryant Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater, 810 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis MN. For information on upcoming events at Bryant Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater, call 612-825-8949 or visit bryantlakebowl.com. For information on Umbrella Collective and their upcoming work, visit umbrellaco.org.
Conceived by: Alana Horton; Created by Umbrella Collective and the ensemble; Directors and Story Designers: Megan Clark and Alana Horton; Music Designer: Michelle Hernick; Costume and Props Design: Josie Everett; Dramaturgy: Jo Holcomb; Stage Managers: Jenny Moeller
Cast: Michelle Hernick, Meredith Kind, Natavia Lewis, Antonia Perez, Jessie Scarborough-Ghent, Mickaylee Shaughnessy.