Americans are obsessed with fashion, but if you thought this was a modern phenomenon, think again. Reno Little Theater’s latest production of the 1845 American classic Fashion! reveals that this American obsession is nothing new.
The play takes place in the home of Mrs. Tiffany (Kathy Welch), an upper-class New York socialite who is infatuated with all things French, which she considers to be the essence of fashion and taste. She has a French maid, she butchers French phrases at every opportunity, and she regularly criticizes all things “vulgar.” In her quest to be the pinnacle of New York fashion, Mrs. Tiffany squanders her husband’s money and entertains a French nobleman, Count Jolimaitre (Tommy Vereen). Mrs. Tiffany gushes over the Count, hoping that he will take an interest in her daughter, Seraphina (Hannah Davis). While most of the other characters follow Mrs. Tiffany’s lead, Adam Trueman (Andrew Mowers) and Gertrude (Camille Abelow) are honest and independent, refusing to slavishly follow the fashions of the times.
Half melodrama and half comedy of manners, Fashion! was one of the first plays to offer a uniquely American voice. Playwright Anna Cora Mowatt was something of wonder for her time. Raised in an upper-class family in New York and France, she turned to writing when her husband lost his fortune due to bad investments. She wrote Fashion! in a few weeks, and it became an immediate sensation. Mowatt soon became an actress herself, spending years touring throughout America and Europe before her health forced her to retire. Her career did much to add respectability to the profession of acting, which at the time was considered to be a haven for unsavory characters. Although Mowatt initially shocked upper-class New Yorkers when she became an actress, her glowing reviews forced the elite to admit that actors could have class.
Director Doug A. Mishler has staged this performance of Fashion! as a play-within-a-play. As the show opens, a fictitious 19th century acting troupe, the Mowatt Players, are setting up the stage in preparation for the performance.
The prologue raises some important issues of the time, including race relations, women’s status and temperance. During this introduction, one of the actors puts on blackface to play the black servant, Zeke. The actors discuss the necessity of wearing blackface since black actors were not accepted at the time. Since Zeke is such an outrageous black stereotype, this set-up is entirely justified.
During the performance, a couple of the actors portray hecklers. They routinely interject comments, showing how 19th century audiences were much rowdier than those of today.
While some historical details are portrayed with accuracy, others are overlooked. For example, the custom of wearing blackface is strictly followed, but the French maid wears a short skirt that seems far too modern.
Kathy Welch gives an energetic performance as Mrs. Tiffany. She is both pushy and ridiculous, as she giggles, simpers and flatters her way through her drawing room of guests. Her lines generate many laughs, as she stumbles over French pronunciations. Terri Bortot is also humorous as the gossipy Prudence, a busybody whose meddling causes difficulties for others.
Fashion! entertains with its fast-paced dialogue, amusing characters and lots of intrigue. Above all, it offers audiences a glimpse into our past and shows us how little we have changed.