At the Tap Gallery, the show really starts in the foyer. Not officially, of course, but between the shelves of second hand books, the eclectic seating, the ragamuffin accessories and collectables and a proprietor who happily converses, monologue-style, with all who enter, make me feel as if the play on offer actually runs second billing to the pre-show entertainment. Last night I learnt, in this order, all about Lucy, the chimpanzee, who wanted to have sex with humans and thought she was human and was released, disastrously, back into the wild and that the council have ruled that the performance space at the Tap must close in a week as the permit has been revoked. I realise that Alan Ball’s play ‘Five Women Wearing the Same Dress’ might be the last show we see at the Tap and pray it serves its space well.
Act IV, boasts it “is a female-run company with a passion for thought-provoking theatre, exploring and celebrating stories about being a woman”. It is an admirable mission indeed. Employing director Deborah Jones to take the four founding members of the company with the rest of its cast into the world of Ball’s play (from Six Feet Under and American Beauty fame) was a much bigger mission that didn’t always work but for the most part, captured the witty essence of Ball’s work.
‘Five Women Wearing the Same Dress’ tells the story of five Knoxville bridesmaids, dressed in the taffeta glory reminiscent of bad weddings in the 1980’s and 90’s and as each of the bridesmaids take solace in the bride’s younger sister’s room, they reveal their desires, celebrate their identity, bemoan their situations and bitch tirelessly about their dislike for the bride, about men and sometimes about themselves. One of Alan Ball’s early works, it still contains the humour and depth we see in his later work but a little less defined and its ending still relies on the presence of a man coming to the rescue of a woman, insinuating that women don’t really know what they want. It’s a little anti-climatic but there’s a lot there that takes it beyond its ending.
There’s a considerable amount of ‘acting’ happening on stage and if you can see it, it’s not quite working as a believable piece of theatre. The reality is that these founding members have been miscast for this play and so as their characters, they don’t always capture the complexity of their characters and lack conviction. Add to that, there’s a mistimed rhythm that drags out the dialogue and allows gaping holes between lines that are as large as the taffeta sleeves on those dresses. It means that the first half in particular feels contrived, rehearsed and static. Jones needs to try to overcome some acting issues by pumping out the pace of that action and not allowing all the ‘face-acting’, props-playing and staring off into space that make us acutely aware of the limitations of her cast.
But there are times when the play steams along and is relatively engaging (except when the air conditioning is off and I’m sweating like the sixth bridesmaid in taffeta). By far the strongest of the cast is Eleanor Ryan as Mindy, lesbian sister to the groom. She had belief and integrity in the role and managed to find the comic timing without overworking it. Kaitlin DeLacy (Meredith) had moments, especially when accessing the high emotions like anger but didn’t find the tension and conviction needed in her revelation to make that work quite as well. Mel Ryan(Trisha) also found moments of subtlety but the lack of sexual tension between her and Nadim Accari (Tripp) was disappointing, given its importance to end the character's journey. But for the most part, they carried the play and gave their audience of friends and family a show that they enjoyed.
Production values are always going to be compromised at the Tap- it’s essentially a four day run in a lounge room space with limited technological resources. But designers Gloria Bava (costumes) and Tristan Carey (set) create more than ample opportunities to allow the visual effrontery of those dresses to tell us everything we need to know about the bride, the wedding and its desired effect of humiliating the women and the space in which they find themselves.
I have to commend Act IV for attempting to find plays that allow women to take the stage and deal with gender issues and equity. But they do need to keep honing their craft if they want to sustain that vision beyond their network of supporters. ‘Five Women Wearing the Same Dress’ goes some way to delivering that ideal but still has some way to go.