A wardrobe of hard-earned wisdom7/15/2015
The company calls itself Rising Phoenix, and its latest show makes you think of the myth — the bird consumed by fire and then rising from the ashes, more beautiful than before. Founded in 2011, the next year Phoenix mounted a solid run-through of Nora Ephron’s “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” but then went dormant awhile. Now, back with a new production, they’ve risen up wonderfully, balancing a sturdy set-up with emotions that bubble over everywhere.
Ephron remains best known for screenplays like “Sleepless in Seattle,” but she was a Renaissance woman, producing personal essays, journalism and more. She worked up this theater piece with the help of her sister Delia and other collaborators.
“Love, Loss, and What I Wore” first took shape as a book by Ilene Beckerman. A memoir-via-clothing, you might say, to the Ephrons, it suggested a play. The sisters reached out to more than 100 other women, seeking their stories, and the results began playing Off-Broadway in 2009. Soon it picked up a number of awards.
Among those was one for “Unique Theatrical Experience,” and so the Rising Phoenix production teeters refreshingly between a reading and a full-out drama. Six actresses work from stools arrayed to either side of a central rack. On this are hung, one by one, cartoons of women’s outfits. The players themselves, however, remain in unfussy black. All but one take on several characters, now “Stephanie,” now “Nancy,” now “Older Sister,” as they spin stories about — well, see the title.
At regular intervals, too, everyone stands for a rapid-fire sequence called “Clothesline.” These collect loosely linked outbursts about clothing, one often topped by the next:
“You look like a slut!”
“You look like a prostitute!”
Much as these segments make you laugh, though, they share in the larger continuity. They help sketch a woman’s life, from her Brownie outfit right through her late-middle-aged acceptance, in the final “Clothesline,” that she looks best in black. If that’s wisdom, these women earn it, just as the cartoons at center-stage grow ever more mature.
That wardrobe, however, belongs to just one woman, Gingy. Handled by the lone actress who doesn’t have multiple roles — in this production Mary Bricker — it, too, veers from chuckles to choking up. Bricker delivers both, sometimes within the same few lines and with the least gesture, asserting her place as one of the best actors in town. But Tiffany Flory, the youngest onstage, can knock your head back just by shouting “I love black!” Also, as a native New Yorker, when I heard Barbara Martin do the accent, I had to say — respect.
Still, the success of this show depends on the group, the company, and so it matters that one of the Rising Phoenix founders, Lyra Halsten, proved a revelation. She juggled a handful of spot-on voices and changed moods with just a cock of her hips. Whatever she wore, Halsten looked smashing.
Overheard in the Lobby: This weekend, Urbandale Community Theater presents “State Fair.” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.