Fashion | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Body Politic Theatre

The challenge is a tough one. How does one make a play about shallowness and materialism, featuring shallow and materialistic characters, without making a shallow and materialistic play? Give up? Well, the answer seems to have also eluded playwright Doug Lucie and the Body Politic Theatre, which, in an effort to expose the current era's greed and cynicism, winds up showcasing its own.

Word has it that Body Politic's fallen on hard times and, perhaps to reverse this, has engaged in a misleading publicity blitz designed to titillate potential audiences for Lucie's Fashion. A letter to subscribers promises that "the fun and games include a charge of rape, nudity, political sell-out and a vicious beating." Press releases play up the scandal and the five minutes or so of nudity in the show, and one promises "double nudity."

Why rape charges and vicious beatings are "fun and games" escapes me, and why two nude dudes onstage at the same time would make me want to subscribe is something of a poser. This probably wouldn't bug me so much if Body Politic weren't trying to get a crowd into the theater by using the kind of cynical tactics criticized by the play it's producing.

Fashion claims to be yet another play indicting the evils and moral bankruptcy of Thatcher's England, but it has some moral problems of its own. Paul Cash is a greedy, cynical, cash-grubbing (get it? get it?) ad consultant who delights in cheap sex and expensive suits. He's a ruthless SOB, amoral and calculating in both his business and personal life. To direct a commercial for the Conservative Party he hires Stuart Clarke, a liberal filmmaker and the husband of the woman he's screwing. He also hires a male prostitute to work as his personal slave and office stooge. And he forges an alliance with a young, empty Thatcher clone who uses sex to further her career, sleeping with a powerful parliament figure and later falsely accusing him of raping her.

Cash is amused and indifferent as he destroys the people around him. He takes a personal delight in destroying Clarke's ideals, relishing the knowledge that he caused him misery. He bullies his secretary, abuses his fellow workers, and gives little more than a shrug of the shoulders when the member of parliament, having been ruined by the rape charges, bursts into tears.

Lucie's writing consists less of intelligent dialogue and characterization and more of crass sloganeering. Cash's philosophy is summed up in his ready-to-be-printed-on-a-T-shirt statement "Fuck art--let's make money." Talking to a prostitute he's picked up, he muses, "In a sense we're all bought and sold." Mixed in is well-worn twaddle about the forces of social Darwinism in capitalism and seemingly endless political rants.

There's little in Fashion that hasn't been said better before. A lot of David Hare's work seems to have sneaked into Lucie's play, and a few scenes seem borrowed from Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. The characters are all too familiar--the disillusioned liberal joking his way through his misery, the blustering racist politician of the old school, the angry lower-class young man, the sweet country girl using her innocent appearance to disguise a calculating, manipulative underside. "Don't let my sex fool you," she says. "I'm as ruthless as any man."

The main intrigue in Fashion comes from the sexual tension between Cash, Clarke, and Clarke's wife Amanda. Will Clarke find out that Cash and Amanda have been doing the nasty? Will Clarke and Amanda get back together? There's an interesting moment in the play when Cash becomes visibly incensed after learning that Amanda has, God forbid, slept with her husband. But the triangle is for the most part so unappealing that it's difficult to care what will happen to any of them.

If Lucie's point is that everyone's a jerk, he solidifies this point by revealing himself to be a jerk in his treatment of women--a politically incorrect no-no for a politically correct play. When Amanda tries to placate the sullen Cash by getting down on her knees and unzipping his trousers, this seems less a believable character choice than the fantasy of a male author. More disturbing is Lucie's treatment of the young parliamentary candidate's rape charge; he leaves no doubt that the charge has been trumped up, as if women frequently use rape charges as a political tool. And in case you missed the point, the Rolling Stones' "Bitch" is played at top volume after the character exits.

Yet the worst sin of Fashion is not its sexism or its ancient ideas, but that it acts as if it's something really modern and revolutionary and scandalous. The tritest phrases are spoken as if for the first time, and the creaky plot devices are dressed up with loud pop music, rough language, and slick video effects. Lucie reveals himself to be a sneaky pragmatist not all that different from Paul Cash, who cares much more for the slick package than what's inside.

Director Albert Pertalion seems convinced that his production of Fashion is saying something profound about the 80s and 90s, but from the sound of his director's notes he isn't quite sure what the message is. Perhaps it was the ambiguous morality of Fashion that led him to pen the following explanation: "The humanistic sixties gave way to the materialistic eighties. The music of the late sixties and early seventies reacted against the fifties and early sixties but those songs never dreamed the excesses materialism could achieve. Those songs of the Eurhythmics, the Rolling Stones and even the Beatles presaged the materialistic eighties more tellingly than their after the fact attack on earlier versions." What?

Pertalion's production does have a few nice touches. The set and sound system are slick. There are nifty video effects and expensive-looking TV screens. Some good performances are on display as well, particularly from Gary Houston (Clarke) and Belinda Bremner, who is given far too little to do as the put-upon office secretary. But just as money and material things can't hide the emptiness of the lives of Lucie's characters, fancy window dressing and some good acting can't diguise a cynical and empty play.

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