CATF’s ‘Everything You Touch’: The darker side of fashion

CATF’s ‘Everything You Touch’: The darker side of fashion

Sheila Callaghan play explores the strangeness that lies behind what we imagine to be glamor, a business where beauty is not always truth.

Splash photo, Everything You Touch.
"Everything You Touch." Esme (Libby Matthews) in Victor's design studio. (Photo Credit: Seth Freeman)

SHEPHERDSTOWN, West Virginia, July 19, 2015 – To the average American the world of fashion often comes across as an extended freak show. Televised clips of garments being newly debuted on glamorous runway fashion shows tend to run a gauntlet, featuring items either un-wearable or bizarre, most of which are draped around anorexic female models far thinner than nearly every woman on the planet.

Playwright Sheila Callaghan. (Courtesy CATF)
Playwright Sheila Callaghan. (Courtesy CATF)

Few items we glimpse in these clips ever find their way to Nordstrom’s or Macy’s. But with modifications here and there, these garments still manage to find their show up in the costly wardrobes of the rich and famous, generating upfront profits for their kooky designers, along with the inevitable, profitable knockoffs that dominate most sales in every fashion season.

It’s all part of the wild, weird and strangely fascinating international fashion scene, which—along with its narcissistic purveyors and enablers—anchors “Everything You Touch,” a new, dark and often disturbing problem comedy by playwright Sheila Callaghan that opened last weekend at the Contemporary American Theater Festival here.

Read also: CATF 2015: West Virginia festival debuts 5 American dramas

The focal point of Callaghan’s play, which had its world premiere last year in Pasadena, is controversial top fashion designer Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski). Or, perhaps more appropriately, the real focal point is Victor’s super-sized ego, a pathologically self-absorbed force that surrounds and engulfs everything and everyone he touches.

Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski).
Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski) in yet another fashion and personal dilemma. (Credit: Seth Freeman)

Victor and his ego do share one key vulnerability, however. Victor seems, at all times, to require the live-in presence of a “Muse,” much like those flamboyant early Romantic poets whose well of inspiration would quickly run dry without a magical woman to maintain it.

For many years, that role has been fulfilled by the equally ego-driven Esme (Libby Matthews), a darkly glamorous figure who regularly either envisions or inspires Victor’s latest asymmetrical, post-industrial fashion statements.

Like all narcissists, however, Victor grows tired of his mistress/muse. The point is driven home when he’s suddenly distracted by a pert, attractive, aggressive, but not terribly bright Southern belle named Louella (Marianna McClellan), newly arrived in New York and not-too-subtly on the make.

Louella (Marianna McClellan)
Louella (Marianna McClellan), Victor’s new muse. (Credit: Seth Freeman)

Summarily and brutally replaced, Esme heads off to parts unknown as the less elegant and more plebian Louella inspires Victor to radically alter his prickly design thrust to focus more on light, casual, wash-and-wear concepts. These new designs become wildly popular and wildly profitable, but Victor’s boom-bust cycles of destruction and renewal continue.

Like many a typical Hollywood career, a career in fashion tends to be bigger than life, at least for the participants at its core. Boom-bust, make-break, sin-scandal self- destructiveness-and-repentance-renewal cycles flash on and off over the years.

It’s this repetitive, Phoenix-like lifestyle that Callaghan attempts to replicate in her script, which abandons for the most part the linear style of most plays, substituting a kind of time-travel continuum that takes us back and forth between 1974 New York—in which the play is originally set—and landing in our own era where we see that Victor’s life is still on the same wash-rinse-repeat cycle.

Jess (Dina Thomas).
Is Jess (Dina Thomas) seeing visions of fashion poltergeists? (Credit: Seth Freeman)

It’s during this longer journey that Victor meets his strangest muse of all, the gawky, geeky, unashamedly oversexed Jess (Dina Thomas), who inspires the designer to craft clothes “for the rest of us,” although he still can’t quite abandon his signal excursions into the weird and bizarre.

It’s here, though, that things get rather confusing. There seems to be a relationship between Esme and Jess that spans the decades. But for all the ego-driven and promiscuous sex among the various characters, pinning down dates, times, responsibilities and DNA gets a bit rattled and confused.

Either Victor, et. al., are carrying about some very dark secrets. Or Victor’s three muses are disembodied, inspirational concepts, not real persons. Within the context of the play, it’s hard to tell for certain which makes the ultimate meaning of this play somewhat unclear. Is it a semi-comic tragedy? Are we witnessing a chaotic life as envisioned through a drug-induced, hallucinogenic haze? Are we involved in a medieval-style morality play? Is this theater of the absurd? Or could it be all of the above?

Jess (Dina Thomas) and Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski).
Jess (Dina Thomas) and Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski). Days of Future Past? (Credit: Seth Freeman)

“Everything You Touch” thus becomes something of an enigma. It’s engaging, freaky, funny and upsetting at different times and spaces. What the play does best is create a vivid impression of the kind of manic, ego-driven, self-obsessed characters who inhabit the fashion industry, frequently self-destructing along the way like small, supernova firebursts. But what it does less well is give us a sense of what really drives its crazy characters, a problem made more confusing by the morphing of time and space as well as the confusing confluence of possible family relationships.

The acting in this play is first rate, particularly that of Jerzy Gwiazdowski, whose virtually insane, never-get-a-wink-of-sleep Victor and his voracious ego both leave a tornadic path of human destruction in their wake. Nice performances as well are turned in by his muses, as portrayed by Libby Matthews, Marianna McClellan and Dina Thomas.

A hat tip as well to Mark Thomas as Jess’ hapless admirer, friend and would-be significant other, Lewis. As the only genuinely normal character in a play filled with borderline psychotics, Thomas’ portrayal of Lewis is a welcome touch of normalcy.

Esme (Libby Matthews) in one of Peggy McKowen's sportier fashions.
Esme (Libby Matthews) in one of Peggy McKowen’s sportier fashions. (Credit: Seth Freeman)

Kudos as well to set designer David M. Barber and costume designer Peggy McKowen. The ingenious set for this production is one of the most clever, evocative, tricky and elaborate designs we’ve seen in many years of reviewing CATF productions, and its sudden, surprising, ingeniously embedded special effects add special magic and drive to a play that really requires them.

Likewise, Peggy McKowen’s over-the-top costuming—again, some of the most elaborate we’ve ever seen here—is utterly essential to convey the meaning of this play, the essence of the world of high fashion, and, above all, the surrealistic life force that inhabits its key characters who cannot possibly be living on the same planet as the rest of us.

“Everything You Touch” is one of the better efforts of this 25th anniversary CATF season. With perhaps a bit more clarity on the relationship issue in a future script revision, it could become even better. But for certain, Sheila Callaghan’s strange comic vision of a strange industry and the haunted creatures that inhabit it could not possibly have been realized without the seriously great set and costumes brilliantly realized by CATF’s talented back-stage staff.

Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of four stars)

“Everything You Touch” by Sheila Callaghan continues its run at CATF’s Frank Center Stage through August 2. For dates, times and directions to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, visit the official CATF web site.

For an overview of CATF 2015, check out our CDN preview article here.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17