Summer festival fare doesn’t have to be silly, lightweight fun — but it’s nice when that turns out to be the case, as with “Vendetta Chrome,” a spoof on the inane mannerisms (and innate worthlessness) of Victorian education for young ladies. There’s a pointed feminist message underlying Sally Oswald’s saucy sendup of the elocution classes taught with a straight face in girls’ schools in the 1890s. But it doesn’t get in the way of the giddier pleasures of this broadly stylized production, helmed by Alexis Poledouris in the antic style associated with those theatrical provocateurs at Clubbed Thumb.
Oswald claims inspiration from an 1892 theatrical manual, “Dramatic Studies and Selections for Amateurs,” written by Bessie Bryant Bosworth and presumably taken with the utmost seriousness by Victorian elocution teachers. Instead of swotting classic Greek texts like the boys, girls donned flowing Grecian robes over their bulky school uniforms (an indignity hilariously imagined by costumer Jessica Pabst) and were trained instead in the “classical” poses of human expression.
Communicating the ludicrousness of such a class is the headless, one-armed statue of a Greek goddess that dominates Jason Simms’ artfully austere school setting. The subtle cruelty of this Victorian education also comes across in Tracy Bersley’s toe-in-cheek choreography, through the awkward efforts of a class of schoolgirls to emulate the graceful movements of their inanimate model.
Under the baleful eye of Bessie Bosworth (a stern taskmistress in Jeanine Serralles’ serenely sadistic performance), a gaggle of girls awkwardly goes through the drill of portraying such maidenly attitudes as Horror, Fright and Grief when they would rather be pounding one another in a mean game of basketball. Or tormenting poor, pathetic Vendetta (the most innocent of virginal victims, as played by fresh-faced Ariana Venturi), whose widowed, wheelchair-bound father (Sam Breslin Wright) has acquired the school in an effort to win Miss Bosworth’s heart, if she actually has one.
Without getting overly anachronistic about it, Oswald makes some tough and funny observations about the wiliness of adolescent girls, so adroit at following idiotic adult directives while secretly pursuing their own, socially forbidden agendas. But we are not talking “Maedchen in Uniform,” here — or even the Five Lesbian Brothers — and heavy socio-political satire is not this scribe’s overriding theatrical goal.
A flawless theatrical style is more the point of this production, whose success is better measured by its fluid interpolation of Katherine Dunham dance poses with the wide-eyed grimaces and jerky movements of a Mary Pickford silent movie.
Which is not to say that lessons of life are not learned. Take the scene on the railway track in which Vendetta becomes an orphan. Brave girl that she is, she attempts to apply the lessons of her elocution classes to a crisis in the real world — namely, the appearance of a locomotive bearing down on her father and Miss Bosworth, who are tied to the track. In a show of classical spirit, Vendetta dutifully performs exactly as she was taught in school. But, alas, arching one’s neck and extending one’s arm doesn’t quite do the trick.