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When one looks at the amazing life of style maven Diana Vreeland (1902-1989), who for many years was editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine, it is easy to see that she experienced a good deal of highs and lows in her lifetime. But a short play that is based specifically on one moment in time in the life of the fashion mogul may be the nicest thing ever to happen to the grande dame. As part of the newest season of TheatreFest at North Carolina State University, the one-woman show Full Gallop, written by Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson, is being staged in the Kennedy-McIlwee Theatre in Thompson Hall. The work, which has received the royal treatment from director John McIlwee and the cast and crew, takes a look at Vreeland at a point that might be the toughest she faced: having been fired from her position at Vogue as Editor-in-Chief, Vreeland threw herself into a whirlwind tour of Europe for four months. She has just this morning returned to her New York apartment, and finds herself at loose ends.
Full Gallop is a character study that dearly loves the lady. University Theatre has done this show up in spades, from an immaculate set in three levels, to McIlwee's trademark costumes and hair, to a dynamic portrayal of the lady herself by celebrated Raleigh actress Lynda Clark. Clark, done up to the nines in Vreeland-esque style, was seemingly the lady herself, deftly handling her cigarette stylus; gabbing with friends on the phone; sniping at her perennial French maid, Yvonne (deftly played by JoAnne Dickinson, whom we never see; she's only evident through the intercom); and speaking directly to us as if we were one of the guests attending the little dinner party she has planned for this evening. In every aspect, Clark immersed herself in all that made us see the celebrated maven as, perhaps, she really was.
We learn a great deal of Vreeland's life in just one short hour; she speaks to us of her late husband, Reed, and her early married years in London raising her two small boys. She left London in 1937 because "the war" was coming, and everyone knew it. She speaks to us of being in Munich before the war, already a high society gal, and the "hilarity" of seeing Adolph Hitler and "that absolutely ridiculous" mustache. Her life is one big celebration rubbing elbows with absolutely everyone who is anyone, and dropping names everywhere. She knows, because everyone keeps calling her about it, that her friends have been out scaring up a new post for her, because – though she'd never tell us – she's got to have some cash. There is a newly-available position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curating their famed Costume Institute; but when Syd, who's on the board, calls to talk to her about it, she informs him that, "I'm just too busy!" History has already documented her success at the post, so she's not fooling anyone. But it's fun to watch her try.
The show is played out on the kind of set for which University Theatre has become famous; one that makes you want to move in. A lovely floral sofa sits center stage, backed by a stereo console circa 1970, the kind with speakers built right in and a turntable built for playing multiple LP's.
A delivery brings a bouquet of dazzling lilies, which she displays on the adjacent table; there are glasses, letters, and magazines strewn all over the front room. Her dining area, stage left, becomes her office, as she spearheads tonight's dinner – which isn't going well – and keeps track of the many people who call. Clark's every move seemed to be Vreeland's, from her strange problem with a sofa pillow to the point, mid-show, where she lay down on the floor and covered her face with a kerchief! Stage right is the boudoir, complete with a high draped window over the bed and a mural on one whole wall that depicts multiple sites in Paris, her place of birth. Clark flitted about with the well-oiled familiarity of someone completely at home here, adding a very nice reality to Vreeland's constant motion. It was obvious to us that the maven never stopped; one wonders what would have happened if she had.
Vreeland continues to assail us with highlights from her trip, dates and times from her past, and a long series of notables, like Coco Chanel, Vava Attelburgh, and German actress Brigitte Helm. We are kept on the edge of our seat as she continues to arrange with Yvonne on the intercom what seems to be a dinner that will never come to pass, but her focus remains on entertaining us as her guests, just as she intends to do tonight – come hell or high water!
As we have seen from Clark's work in the past – most notably her turn as Maria Callas in Master Class – the one-woman show is one very sharp arrow in her quiver of theatrical talents. Her study of Vreeland and her ability to put herself inside the body of a much older character were real treats to watch. Her ability to mimic the speech patterns of this perennial New Yorker was classic. It's always a pleasure to watch Clark at her craft, but this particular study was a true feather in her cap, and one you should not miss if at all possible. Tickets for Full Gallop and, indeed, all the shows in this season's TheatreFest (Noel Coward's Hay Fever and the regional premiere of Adam Pasen's Tea with Edie and Fitz) can be had by calling Ticket Central.
Full Gallop plays again on June 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.