Fashion is pain, beauty is suffering and thin is in in the chic black comedy Everything You Touch, playwright Sheila Callaghan’s faboo-looking treatise on body shaming, art and finding your identity.
Like other works by Callaghan—That Pretty Pretty; Or the Rape Play and Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) – this one is dreamlike and trippy, flip-flopping between time periods and perspectives.
Her setting for Everything You Touch is the narcissistic world of fashion, going between 1974 New York (where punk couture was just starting to make waves) and the present day, where a self-loathing cyber coder named Jess (a radiantly engaging and fearless Dina Thomas), tries to figure out how to be happy in the skin she’s in. But she also wants more—to be the kind of woman people look at, as if staring into the sun.
Both eras are dominated—and we mean dominated—by the presence of Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowksi, slithery as a snake and possessing a viper’s tongue), a 70s designer who believes the fashion should be as torturous and demanding as possible. Clad exclusively in black and whip-thin—he’d make Karl Lagerfeld waddle to Weight Watchers—Victor designs clothes that are cruel to the wearer and are an expression of his aesthetic of pain.
As painful as it is to watch the models hobble down the runway in crippling platform shoes and bondage gear, there is something ephemeral and beautiful about some of his creations. However, you don’t know if that is due to Victor’s perverse artistry or the behind the scenes talents of his muse, Esme (Libby Matthews), divinely thin and possessing that severe beauty that would make Diana Vreeland swoon. Their codependent bond echoes that of the late Alexander McQueen and his similarly destructive and suicidal muse Isabella Blow.
Victor’s journey from fashion visionary and outsider (think early Vivienne Westwood or McQueen) to comfortably rich sellout (think Ralph Lauren) is juxtaposed with the jumbly and sad, self-flagellating Jess, a lost girl in her late 20s who is too busy beating herself up to enjoy anything good about herself or even entertain the notion that someone nice (coworker Lewis, played with sweet geekiness by Mark Thomas).
Jess reluctantly leaves New York to go back to Little Rock, Arkansas to visit and maybe make peace with her dying mother—who in her heyday rode her daughter hard and relentlessly about her weight and her appetite.
Jess is actually making a road trip back to herself and she has company for the trip—a rather vivid and challenging hallucination.
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN THEATER FESTIVAL
July 19 – August 2
Everything You Touch
2 hours with 1 intermission
Details and Tickets
Everything You Touch tends to be a bit of a mess dramaturgically, with lapses in logic that require huge leaps of imagination by the audience, who may find themselves at intermission trying to figure out just what the hell happened in Act One.
A subplot involving a hayseed (Marianna McClellan, a beacon of normalcy) who replaces Esme as Victor’s muse seems nothing more than an awkward contrivance and not entirely plausible—would the high priest of angst-as-art really throw over his impossible standards so quickly to design comfortable separates you could conceivably buy at Sears? Even if it was a wink to prankish haute couture, it falls flat.
Still, for the fashion savvy for whom Vogue is a bible, it is a fun show to watch, filled with outrageous high-fashion splendor and runway attitude. If it were more body-positive, it would be a smash.
Everything You Touch by Sheila Callaghan . Directed by May Adrales . Featuring Dina Thomas, Jerzy Gwiazdowski, Libby Matthews, Marianna McClellan, Mark Thomas, Molly Brown,
Allyson Malandra, Sarah Nealis, Adam Phillips, Katya Stepanov and Liba Vaynberg . Set Designer David M. Barber . Costume Designer Peggy McKowen . Lighting Designer John Ambrosone . Sound Designer David Remedios . Projection Designer Shawn Duan . Technical Director Ryan Cole . Stage Manager Tina Shackleford . Composer Nathan A. Roberts . Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Running in repertory through August 2 at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Shepherdstown, West Virginia.