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On the surface, British fashion muse Isabella Blow did not lead a very comical life. A fashion editor of the glossy magazine Tatler and the discoverer of acclaimed designer Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy, Blow — AKA "Issi" — was disowned by her parents and suffered from nearly lifelong clinical depression worsened by infertility, electroshock therapy, and an ovarian cancer diagnosis. She attempted suicide six times — not limited to sleeping pills, horse tranquilizers, car crashes, and drowning — before succeeding the seventh time by ingesting weed killer.
So a script about Blow's life, which reached its painful end in 2007, doesn't seem appropriate for a laugh riot such as the South Beach Comedy Festival. But Jessica Farr's play Charming Acts of Misery will kick off the festival Wednesday, April 17, as the Mad Cat Theatre Company's annual SoBe Comedy Fest production. According to director Paul Tei, the humor will transcend the pain.
"There's a lot of natural comedy in certain aspects of her life," he says. "There is something funny about wanting to kill yourself and not getting it right six times; there's a natural comedic vein there. When her sister discovered her on the final suicide attempt, Issi's concern was that she hadn't drunk enough weed killer. When she broke her ankles on the second suicide attempt, she was devastated because she couldn't wear high heels anymore. Before she went to kill herself [and succeeded], she said, 'I'm going shopping.' In all of those things, for me, there's comedy there. And for the British, especially from a theatrical standpoint, there's an ability to walk that fine line between tragedy and comedy that I think we're hopefully finding in this piece."
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Farr, who started out with a "fashion crush" on Blow, is quick to point out Samuel Beckett's famous quote from his play Endgame: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness."
"She had such a great sense of humor herself," says Farr, a Mad Cat company member who, like Tei, has relocated to Los Angeles. "I'm not laughing at her, but I think she would have looked back at a lot of events in her life in her ghoulish fashion as some kind of sick joke that was just great and wonderful and such a surprising act of juxtaposition. I feel like she was the Edith Piaf of the fashion world; she was a train wreck, but remembered in a lovely way."
Farr and Tei concocted the idea for Charming Acts of Misery in a brainstorming session involving Google and Wikipedia. But Farr took over the sole writing duty, conceptualizing the play — which runs about 40 minutes — as a fever-dream flashback of Blow's life that runs through her head after she has taken the weed killer. (A longer version of Charming Acts of Misery is expected to enjoy a full run at Mad Cat this summer.)
The microbudget performances will take place at Backstage @ the Fillmore, a limited rehearsal space with no lighting grid. There will be virtually no props, and even the costumes will be minimalist.
Blow was known for showcasing Treacy's elaborate hats, which elevated headwear to something like installation art, making her a major influence on Lady Gaga. (Bryan Ferry was a close friend too.) But during this production, Erin Joy Schmidt, who will play Blow, will wear just one headpiece, to be created by Mad Cat designer Karelle Levy.
"When you have limitations put upon you from the get-go, you try to say, 'OK, let's try to maximize and at the same time be very economical,'" Tei says. "Part of that helps with the fantasy and the fluidity, to make it move and not be cluttered, because we don't have a backstage area. The imagination of allowing the audience to fill it in and having the actors create what that is — it's kind of like a dream."
The fact that Charming Acts of Misery is a one-night-only production raises its own set of unique challenges. For the actors, the rehearsal process is no different from that of a five-week production, but this time they won't have the luxury of fine-tuning their chemistry after a few shows in front of audiences.
"I think it raises the stakes for these two shows to get it as right as we possibly can get it," says Gregg Weiner, who plays Alexander McQueen and two other characters. "So it's completely different from doing a run of a show, where you can grow it. It's like put up or shut up and kill it for both shows, because that's it.
"We'll definitely fix things," he adds. "There will be adjustments between shows. And yet I've had interesting experiences with the first performances ever in front of an audience. Like at Mosaic and GableStage, I've had crazy responses from audiences on that first preview and have never had them again. There's something about that first time."
Tei sees the entire production as a luxury — a really nice workshop at a reasonable price amid an infectiously funny atmosphere.
"I look at it as we're fortunate to be the only theater company that gets to do the South Beach Comedy Festival," he says. "And to rub elbows with some of these high-profile comedians is fun, to think we're a part of that. I think because people go to a comedy festival anticipating laughter, they're ready for it. Nobody goes to a comedy festival, unless they're dragged, going, Oh, great." They're wanting to have a good time. They're ready to laugh, so on some level it's a little bit easier."