The Good Eye: Of Russians and Ruffles

Chekhov looks surprisingly good in Seventies promwear

<i>Nothing and Everything</i> cast members Courtney Hopkin and Kaci Beeler
Nothing and Everything cast members Courtney Hopkin and Kaci Beeler (Courtesy of Steve Rogers)

As a college student studying Russian, I always underestimated Anton Chekhov. Why take Chekhov's gentle ironies when you can get the ranting genius of a Dostoyevsky, the moral authority of a Tolstoy? In Chekhov, seasons turn, families bicker, and tragedy strikes; but the rhythms and routines of ordinary life soothe the worst shocks, leaving threads of melancholy that run, largely unacknowledged, through our lives until the bitter end. It was all way too mellow for me at the time.

So it was with imperfect knowledge that I approached Nothing and Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays. Thankfully, director Jon Bolden (Squirrel Buddies, Bad Boys), who co-directed a Woody Allen show in 2012 so wistfully witty I went back for a second version, proved a capable teacher, and the cast delivered a show that, if not exactly Chekhov, was something like a Chekhovian air ballet performed on tightrope and trapeze a hundred feet above our heads.

Theatre nerds should be paying close attention. At its best – and Nothing and Everything earns the superlative – long-form improv can deliver insights about theatre itself. All creation begins with a moment of improvisation, sustains itself with commitment, and ends with letting go. As a columnist, I'm still learning the art of cycling through these stages on a weekly basis; improvisers do it hundreds of times in a single night, transforming the accidental into the deliberate with an alchemical grace. It can certainly fail, and in a big-tent improv scene like Austin's, where your boss and your best friend's niece might both be in Maestro on the same night, there are bound to be some awkward moments. But when it succeeds, it's like seeing a butterfly mounted on velvet suddenly beat its wings and fly away.

Consider the following moment, from the third act of the performance I saw: The family's disapproving housemaid Anna (played by Valerie Ward) dropped a book onstage as she was cleaning – a genuine accident played off skillfully by Ward as an expression of her character's mounting frustration. A few moments later, the youngest daughter Irina (Cat Drago) learned of the existence of a stack of letters from her supposedly dead fiancé. Drago's hand flew to her throat, and she dropped her own book, a memento from her fiancé that she'd been carrying reverently for the whole play, in a tragicomical echo of Ward's book-dropping a few moments earlier. Audiences roared with laughter at the loud noise, the repetition, and the contrast between Drago's stricken expression and her careless mistreatment of the same prop she'd been cradling like a china doll for three acts. The book was Chekhov's pop-gun, going off with a bang. That tiny, unplanned but perfect moment gave me an insight into Chekhov's marriage of comedy and tragedy that I had never quite grasped before.

Which brings me to something else I underestimated in college: ruffles. In a move no doubt motivated partially by expediency, the costumes and set of Nothing and Everything conveyed their turn-of-the-20th-century setting with unfussy, playful allusiveness rather than historical accuracy. In practice, this meant Gunne Sax.

Gunne Sax was a brand of ruffly, fluffy women's dresses founded in San Francisco at the height of Haight-Ashbury hippiedom and transformed by Jessica McClintock, who bought the brand in 1969, into a prom-dress empire. There's no mistaking a vintage Gunne Sax prom dress. In the Sixties and Seventies, they drew from every historical style that can be reasonably filed under "romantic." In ankle-grazing lengths, Gunne Sax combined Renaissance corsets, Victorian leg-o'-mutton sleeves, and Edwardian high collars – sometimes all in the same garment! – with prairie-fied calico prints, pearl buttons, and satin trim. The result is a vaguely hippie-ish form of pure feminine nostalgia, innocent of any real historical referent, reeking faintly of camellia blossoms and subjugation.

Needless to say, I am fascinated with Gunne Sax. I have been ever since I first saw them in 2002, when I got my first office job and discovered eBay, in that order. My preference at the time was to dress like a Forties secretary at work and Hutch of Starsky and Hutch at home. I could not make heads or tails of the silly, prissy, repressed-princess femme-iness of the Gunne Sax dresses until I saw one in person, wafting out of an Austin music venue after a show. It was a mint-green, frothy monstrosity, a sartorial rendition of the poison cake in Peter Pan. The woman wearing it accessorized with a dyed-black hipster haircut, knee-high boots, and tattoos that showed through the pale green collar. She looked like an unmitigated badass. In that moment, I at once understood the appeal of vintage Gunne Sax and despaired of ever being butch enough to wear it. And that was before I saw the pictures of Hillary Clinton looking sultry in her poufy, high-necked, puritanical Gunne Sax wedding gown.

Despite this high-profile image of ball-busting Democratic damehood, however, it's probably no coincidence that Jessica McClintock – still running her highly profitable brand as an octogenarian, thank you very much – is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. A savvy businesswoman, she has changed with the times, easing away from the faux-naive modesty of her sought-after Seventies designs for the Disney princess looks of the ensuing decade (a royal-blue satin souvenir of which still hangs in my closet, first worn at a junior high dance and now loaned out occasionally for Eighties parties), and, eventually, abandoning it altogether for today's short-and-tight hegemony.

But that just adds another layer to the nostalgia, doesn't it? And layers are what Gunne Sax is all about – along with ruffles, ruches, flounces, frills, furbelows, and all the other obscuring frivolities that somehow manage to show both nothing and everything.


Tickets for the last performance of Nothing and Everything, playing Sat., Dec. 20 at 8pm, are available at www.hideouttheatre.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin stylefashionarts, Anton Chekhov, ruffles, Gunne Sax, Hillary Clinton, Jessica McClintock, Nothing and Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays, Jon Bolden

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