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In Mad Cat Theatre Company's new bio-play about late British fashion muse Isabella Blow, all the world's a stage, but not a very glamorous one. The intimate theater-in-the-round set design is a harsh runway that juts out from tattered curtains. It's framed by an antlered mannequin, a worn speaker, and random fashion ephemera. The catwalk has gone to seed, but the spotlights and flashbulbs remain firmly fixed on the woman who continues to haunt it, even as she's dying from her seventh suicide attempt.
When this promising world premiere from South Florida native Jessica Farr debuted as a workshop production back in April at the South Beach Comedy Festival, it was called Charming Acts of Misery, which sounds like a Smiths song. Now, stretched to a full-length play, it's titled Blow Me. This sounds like something from Vivid Entertainment's archive. The first title more accurately describes the show's strange and uneasy combination of satirical black humor and psychological inquiry into its mirthful but damaged protagonist.
As Blow Me tells it, Isabella Blow is a woman credited with discovering superstars — designer Alexander McQueen and model Sophie Dahl among them — while remaining on the fringes of the fashion world herself. Only the tabloid journalists stayed glued to her like maggots, reporting her every death wish with tactless glee. In Farr's treatment, it's Blow's almost-famousness, her proximity to brilliance, more than her diagnoses of cancer and bipolar disorder that drove her to an early grave.
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Rather than approaching the daunting task of condensing an entire dramatic life into a linear hour-plus narrative, Farr takes an experimental, cinematic approach. The play opens with Isabella (Erin Joy Schmidt) on her deathbed and her mother (Emilie Papp) looking down on her, in more ways than one, from atop a small ladder. We return to this setting every now and then, in between mostly exaggerated flashbacks from her life and career — exaggerated because they are depicted as Isabella saw the world, in over-the-top flourishes. A Google search for images of the real Blow, bedecked in hats as elaborate as floral centerpieces, can tell you that much.
So Blow Me skips, sometimes disjointedly, across Isabella's life's major signposts, including her interactions with McQueen (Matthew Glass), Dahl (Papp), and milliner Philip Treacy (Noah Levin); her unceremonious career as fashion director with London's Tatler magazine; meeting her husband, Detmar Blow (Gregg Weiner); and sneaking off on an adulterous trip to Venice. We're also treated to a strange, hypnotically staged memory of her unsupportive father (Glass) taking young Issi hunting, with Papp acting as a catwalk-crossing quail frequently interrupting their dialogue.
The story is freewheeling and unpredictable, and sound designer Matt Corey deserves a great deal of credit for instilling a sense of place to an unchanging set, creating the soft ambient samples that suggest studios, nightclubs, fashion shoots, rainstorms, magazine offices, Venetian canals, hospitals, and open fields. The selection of song snippets, from Roxy Music to Adele to Serge Gainsbourg, also helps elucidate character.
Blow Me is a triumph above all, however, for Schmidt, who disappears fully and invisibly into Blow. Clothed in costume designer Karelle Levy's black bob wig, glittering gold dress, meretricious fur coat, and motley feathered hat, Schmidt imbues her character with sartorial beauty and a sense of deep-rooted insecurity. She explodes without a moment's notice and tears up just as instantly, with Schmidt bringing the humanity and pathos to a cerebral exercise that might otherwise hover an arm's length from emotional immersion.
Weiner likewise expresses his versatility in multiple roles that showcase his comic timing. He plays Detmar like an effeminate, charmingly stiff statue that occasionally comes to life, while, as Blow's flippantly cruel boss at Tatler, he seems to be channeling the wry humor of Stephen Merchant. Add to these an hilarious cameo as a gondolier in Venice and you've got a hat trick of memorable support. Glass, who looks like McQueen's doppelganger, capably contributes four roles, while Levine and Papp perform their chameleonic yeomen's duties in an additional 11 parts.
As for the source material, the ending is inelegantly abrupt, and some of the meandering second act feels a bit like padding; perhaps the ideal duration for this show is somewhere between its 40-minute workshop length and its current 90-plus minutes. But its biggest hindrance is its inherent insularity in the fashion universe. The play exists in the bubble it satirizes: Characters are introduced with the full assumption that the audience knows everything about the 1990s oeuvre of Damien Hirsch or the controversy of Alexander McQueen's "Highland Rape" collection and is already well aware of the muse/creator relationship between Blow and Treacy. Theatergoers would be best suited to read up thoroughly on the biographies of Blow and her confidants, lest they find themselves as lost as a Harley rider at a Vogue pitch meeting.
Still, Farr can write. Her script is littered with potent quotables of tragicomic angst that ground the play's surrealist structure. When Blow looses a string of profanities against Detmar and receives a weary and reciprocated expression of love in return, Farr, Schmidt, and Weiner create a moment of profound truth that encapsulates the full spectrum of Issi's manic-depression. Ditto to this pearl of wisdom from Blow, after failing at a number of suicide attempts: "Death is beautiful. Funerals are even more beautiful than weddings, because there's no second chance. Except for me." Somewhere on the other side, Isabella Blow is getting a kick out of this.