A Teutonic instructor (Andrea Schell) stares at her class, then barks out her instructions. You are not fat, she says. You are human beings. If you were fat you could not have picked up the pen to fill out the application to come here. She is a drill sergeant, but a drill sergeant for compassion and self-worth.
A novice anthropologist from England (Andrea Schell) has gone to a lonely Arctic outpost in order to make contact with the indigenous people her mentor, Dr. Hank Peterson, discovered ten years ago. But when she finds them they run away from her, shouting an untranslatable curse in their native tongue. She sees this as a sign of her own inadequacy, and concludes that she is already a failure in her chosen profession.
Erin Elizabeth Peterson, an irrepressibly cheery Southern belle (Andrea Schell), is leading a busload of high school girls on a trip to New York City. This is a club whose purpose it is to raise the self-esteem of the participants. First, she says, everyone should say what she likes about herself. Then she calls for an appreciation of someone else in their lives. For herself, she chooses her husband, Hank. “He calls me his little monkey,” she says.
Tracey (Andrea Schell), who calls herself “the artsy-fartsy one in the family,” has prepared a poem as a toast to raise at her sister’s wedding. But halfway through the poem she apologizes. She says that the poem is no good and all she wanted to say was that she loves and admires her sister.
An elderly Jewish woman with dry skin (Andrea Schell) is on the phone to her cosmetic company, trying without success to get connected to her customer service representative. The person on the other end tries to fob her off on somebody else, but this customer knows what she wants, and is prepared to wait all day until she gets it.
From Seven Layers to a Bikini Top in Less Than Five Hours
by Andrea Schell
Directed by Wade Gasque
Details and tickets
There is more (Andrea Schell), but you get the picture. This is a story of women under siege — women whose sense of self-worth is being constantly assaulted by men, and by their own society-nurtured expectations. In this it is somewhat similar to a play I saw earlier in the festival — The Second Coming of Joan of Arc — but is better because it shows, rather than tells.
Thus Schell, the story’s Santa Monica-based storyteller, is really more of a story-shower. By seizing each of her characters in full from the moment she becomes them she performs the theatrical magic trick of making us forget that this is one actor playing many roles so that we can focus on the story, and enter the fictive dream.
She does this by gifting each character with such specificity — such individual body gestures, speech patterns, intonations and facial expressions — that you can imagine a whole back-story for each of them. You can imagine, for example, that on occasion Tracey drinks too much, and when she does, she is filled with such embarrassment and remorse that she will not come out of her room for a day. You can imagine this not from anything Schell says when she’s Tracey; but from who she is in that role.
Schell knits her story together in surprising ways, and there is an improbable heroine at the end. I must admit that part of the story escaped me, and some of the resolutions weren’t clear, but the point of the story was pellucid. That’s not because it is heavy-handed. It’s because it’s good art.
Oh, the title: Schell does remove various articles of clothing throughout the story until she is dressed in shorts and a modest, sparkly red bikini top. I am not certain what this had to do with anything but it was not distracting. And it takes considerably less than five hours.