For some unbridled personalities, style is life. But for a style addict like fashion icon Isabella Blow, it never provided enough substance to fill the hole in her soul. Watching Blow wrestle with her past on the eve of her seventh suicide attempt provides a cautionary tale in Mad Cat Theatre Company’s insightful, witty and thought-provoking world premiere of Jessica Farr’s Blow Me.
Farr and director Paul Tei’s fever dream of that night depicts a tragic death spiral of a real-life woman, relieved by droll epigrams tossed off by Blow and her coterie like a latter-day Algonquin Round Table.
The play swirls around a bravura performance by the superb Erin Joy Schmidt. She creates a memorable portrait of a flamboyant 24/7 persona constructed for a world of people seeking celebrity as its own self-validation.
Blow Me, beginning with the title, is a classic Mad Cat offering with a surreal style and a pugnaciously nose-thumbing attitude toward traditional theatrical conventions. It’s a perfect match for Blow herself, a British fashion magazine editor famed for mentoring designer Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy.
For this cross between Auntie Mame and Tallulah Bankhead, panache is everything, from her devotion to outrageous hats to the cigarette defiantly hanging between two fingers. After she breaks both ankles in a suicide attempt, a friend suggests she shouldn’t wear high heels. Blow responds, “Don’t be silly. I wouldn’t exist if I couldn’t wear them.”
Farr understands her heroine’s flaws. When Blow complains about losing a job and “facing poverty,” Treacy castigates her: “Despite how many Cinderella lies you’ve told yourself over the years, not everyone is like you, born with a silver spoon only to spit it out when convenient.” Her sadness seems a bit self-indulgent, so it’s nearly impossible to feel sorry over her angst and depression.
The evening is not perfect. Farr spins the evening through space and time with no concern for chronology. Therefore, audiences unfamiliar with Blow’s life may get a bit confused. For the same reason, they’ll feel the script is a bit too long. Worse, Farr doesn’t make clear the roots of Blow’s fatal melancholy other than a rotten relationship with her parents and the professional betrayal of some of her friends.
But there’s no doubting the evolving talent of Farr, the native Miamian who joined Tei last year for the far less disciplined fantasia The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show. Her characters speak with that self-aware stylized language that we like to think in retrospect that we actually uttered. She also has a facility with luxurious language that wafts gloriously like the smoke from that cigarette.
Tei’s talent for making sense out of surrealism is perfectly in sync. His characters walk up and down the white thrust stage as if it were a runway; characters speak over the audience’s head from the dark corners of the tiny black box stage.
Schmidt, often acclaimed for her naturalistic style and quirky voice, has completely obliterated any trace of her earlier portrayals other than a guarded, badly bruised vulnerability.
Supporting her is a clutch of chameleons playing a half-dozen roles each: Noah Levine, Matthew Glass, Gregg Weiner and Emilie Papp.
Costume designer Karelle Levy gleefully lets her imagination run wild within the confines of a limited budget. Our heroine’s garb is intentional anarchy from her ratty fur coat to the veiled cap topped with a flock of feathers whose colors are drawn from a box of Crayolas.
Her work is emblematic of the entire effort in which everyone, Schmidt especially, throws themselves unreservedly and courageously into a difficult tale about a troubled human being.