Superbly written and directed, “Full Gallop” is both a subtly hilarious and zestful portrayal of fashion icon Diana Vreeland’s life.
Vreeland was a force to reckon with in the adventurous and deceitful world of fashion. She was editor in chief—“the editor” as actress Cherie Gil loves to emphasize—of both Harper’s Bazaar (fashion editor from 1936 to 1962) and subsequently for Vogue (editor in chief from 1963 to 1971).
Known for being more than a bit eccentric, Vreeland ran a column in Harper’s, titled “Why Don’t You?” where she posed such odd suggestions as immersing “…your blond child’s hair in dead champagne…”
“Full Gallop,” one can imagine, is an absolute dream role for an actress. The script is lush with historical relevance, political commentary and hilarious witticisms.
The play’s title itself is appropriate. It was Vreeland’s ability to throw herself into “full gallop” that made her a cut above the rest.
Her capacity for exaggerations is mirrored brilliantly in many ways. The curtain rises to reveal the massive expanse of red: rich velvet drapes clasped at one end, deep orange red sofas and a chair swathed also in red. It is against this backdrop that Cherie Gil’s Vreeland emerges in solid black sheath, adorned only by an elaborate white horn-shaped pendant set with semiprecious stones. In a similar exaggerated fashion, her hair is worn up in great bouffant. Indeed the stage, with the sole performer who dominates it, is the perfect picture of the dramatic.
Throughout the play, Vreeland makes allusions to the grandeur of the fashion world and her tenuous hold of it. Playwrights Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson succeeded in doing the nearly impossible: turning a potentially boring, one-woman play into something highly entertaining. The audience’s attention is riveted on the distinctive contrasts running throughout the play.
At one point, Vreeland tells of what a simple life she leads. She is content to make do with her “Swedish meatballs” she intends to serve her dinner guests. This is in sharp contradiction to her opulent lifestyle: she “adores artifice” and is a firm believer in “a little excessive vulgarity.” She laments, even, that “Bloomingdale’s is the end of shopping” because of the unthinkable fact that there is “no one to wait on you.”
She is, clearly, not one with simple tastes. Her protestations to the otherwise lend a comic twist to the play.
The script, however, is not only packed with the hilarious; Cherie is also able, at times, to provoke her audience into thinking. For all her excess and decadence, Vreeland is a character who is forced to maintain a woman’s façade in the world of tough business. Although she has been kicked out from her position, she cannot afford not to keep up appearances. In her words, it is the way one dresses that allows them to “walk down the stairs” and face the world. Not content with an untouched picture, she recalls how she caused quite a scandal by merging different body parts to pander to her interpretation of the “ideal” in a magazine spread.
And, although amusing, her frequent obsession throughout the play of fixing what she sees to be a disorderly piece of red cloth over her chair—though this looks perfectly tidy to members of the audience—is more than a bit revealing of her tendency to overexert herself in maintaining an idealized excellence.
Despite the perfection she strives to achieve and her illustrious career, Vreeland finds herself in very difficult circumstances. Although comical, the way she is reduced to demanding for “Swedish meatballs” for her party, to settling for “macaroni au fromage [macaroni and cheese]” is a very emotional scene. She requests $10 of her maid, and another $20 to help her pay for the delivery, first of her flowers and then for ingredients for dinner.
Although she may seem initially oblivious to the bind she’s in, one senses that she knows exactly where she stands. In the many phone calls she gets, Vreeland puts off any allusion to her job, or any job that she sees to be beneath her. She tries to shrug off repeated offers for a job at Metropolitan Museum.
Again, the comedy belies a character of steel: her allusion to the famous assassination attempt on Elisabeth of Bavaria seems like her own attempt to deal with her painful termination from Vogue. Like Elisabeth who could only clasp the arm of her lady-in-waiting after she was shot, Vreeland must move on, dignified and regal. Like Elisabeth, she must put etiquette above all else; even in her final moment, Elisabeth wore a corset so tight that she could not bleed “externally.”
If anything, this is a poignant reference to Vreeland’s own life. She cannot bleed for others to see; she must bleed in private, yet emerge triumphant.
Like many successful plays, “Full Gallop” gets many things right: the setting, the script and the acting. What initially appears to be a drab and insipid one-woman cast is surprisingly and uniquely turned into something of a spectacle. Historical references, ironies and humor spice up what is essentially a very simple story line: a lady preparing for a dinner.
Indeed, the script stands out in that it has subtle humor, as well as elements of the exaggerated and the dramatic, and succeeds in making the impossible possible: creating a completely engrossing play to watch.
There are plans to restage “Full Gallop” in midyear.