FASHION, a comedy with music by Anna Cora Mowatt; adapted by Anthony Stimac; music by Don Pippin; lyrics by Steve Brown; set by Gerry Stringer; costumes by Linda Miller; lighting by Jack Uram; musical direction by Gail M. Turley; directed by Judith Senn Pollock.
With Janice Barbieri, Cheryl Hutchison, Paula Berard, Daniel M. Ortmeyer, Anne Louise Egler, Rhonda Steckler, Mary Ruberry, Emilie Trimbach, Lucille J. Frohling and Barbara McCulloh.
At the Trinity Theatre.
The theater world is of two minds about 19th-century American drama. Ignore it, forget it, pretend it never existed: That's the majority view. But it's there, it's ours, it must be acknowledged: That's the minority view.
Even the most ardent members of the minority, however, tend to stop short of advocating the actual production of the plays themselves -- plays like James N. Barker's "Superstition" (1824), Dion Boucicalt's "The Octoroon" (1859) and Anna Cora Mowatt's "Fashion" (1845). Instead, they look for ways to call our attention to these works without necessarily subjecting us to them -- which is how the peculiar musical now being performed by Georgetown's Trinity Players came to be.
Anna Cora Mowatt, the widow of a New York lawyer, turned to playwriting in the 1840s with the hope of making money at it -- and succeeded immediately. "Fashion: or Life in New York," a comedy about social-climbing New Yorkers trying to imitate European manners, was the palpable hit of 1845. Mowatt had others too, as both a playwright and an actress.
But when Anthony Stimac, Steve Brown and Don Pippin recently decided to convert "Fashion" into a musical, they were apparently determined to retain as little as possible of the original. What they concocted was a camp musical about a troupe of amaetur actors -- members of the "Long Island Masque and Wig Society, an organization devoted to the preservation of early American drama" -- performaning, in turn, a camp musical adaptation of "Fashion."
Fortunately, composer Pippin and lyricist Brown wrote a crisp, consciously silly score, and the Trinity Players have produced the show with all the flamboyance it deserves.
Director Judith Senn Pollack has given each of her actors an extravagant identifying gesture or two or three, and has arranged them repeatedly in ridiculous tableaus that evoke the acting style of the last century.
It doesn't hurt that female perfomers play male characters. Emilie Trimbach, as the harried father of a family beset with melodramatic problems, has perfected a particular aghast look -- with her wrist curled over her brow -- that is somehow even funnier in a woman playing a man than it would be otherwise.
Of the women who play women, Barbara McCulloh, Cheryl Hutchison and Rhonda Steckler seem to be hiding real comic and musical skills under their flighty deliveries. But their work blends in fine with that of at least a few performers who are up there just having fun.
Few of Washington's many neighborhood theater groups have such enthusiastic support -- onstage, backstage and in the audience -- as the Trinity Players. The play they have chosen to produce this time may not be much, but the play is not always the thing.