Savage Umbrella is a relatively young and scrappy theatre company in town that has always done an admirable job of presenting new stories that place strong, complicated characters at the forefront. Often times, their productions center on the themes and struggles that surround women and the LGBTQ+ community. In their latest workshop performance of The Velvet Swing at Bryant-Lake Bowl, they prove to continue down that road with great success.
The Velvet Swing is a new play that focuses on the life of Evelyn Nesbit. Nesbit was a famous American actress and model who appeared in numerous Broadway shows. However, though incredibly talented, she gained even more notoriety off the stage. Wrapped up in an infamous love affair, Nesbit’s husband shot and murdered the man who sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager. At the time, press referred to the event as the “Trial of the Century.”
With so much intriguing history to dig into, Alana Horton has written a piece that wastes no time jumping in the action. The play throws us into the action of Nesbit’s life from the very beginning. Five players enter the stage and tell us that they will each tell Nesbit’s story in their own individual way. Horton’s writing coupled with Megan Clark’s direction equates to many useful stage devices that enhance the workshop presentation. One device in particular that worked effectively was the choice to have each actor play Evelyn Nesbit. By doing so, the audience naturally gets drastically different perspectives on a single being. With this method, the many layers of Evelyn Nesbit are explored. Because of her beauty, many just saw her as a pretty face without a lot of talent.
Another technique that pushed this story forward was the vaudevillian style of performance. By using this element in the story, the stakes of Nesbit’s reality are heightened. In one particular scene, Nesbit is a young woman in the big city and meeting with her landlord to pay rent. In this scene, the landlord is a gross old man who is quite inappropriate in their exchange. The audience learns that this is an unfortunate encounter that has become a normal occurrence. This scene becomes a great example of the kind of nonsense that not only Nesbit deals with, but that women at large deal with on a daily basis. The very normal act of paying rent becomes yet another instant of devaluation and disrespect. The most powerful part of this moment is that, while a gross breach of decency is happening, it is executed with the humor that naturally comes with the Vaudeville style. The result equates to a darkly humorous look at sexual perversion and the reality that toxic masculinity holds around us.
The use of song and dance elevate the heightened reality of the production. Because we’ve already bought into the presentational nature of the play, it does not seem odd when the performers jump into a choreographed musical number. Leslie Vincent in particular felt incredibly comfortable within the section of song and dance. Her voice is very solid and seemed to be the most confident with the movement as well. Overall, she’s a bright light in this workshop presentation.
Because it is indeed a workshop presentation there are moments in the performances that lack polish and surety. Throughout the performance, the performers are carrying binders that contain their scripts. Of course, one shouldn’t expect for the actors to fully learn text that is meant to be presented as a workshop. Naturally though, there are some performers who were more off-book than others and there are moments in the evening where that was apparent.
That being said, this was a great evening at the theater. This is a promising new work from Alana Horton. Surely, there will be plenty of people who already know who Evelyn Nesbit is and the fascinating life she led. However, if you’re like me, you knew absolutely nothing about her until Horton’s fast and fun work with Savage Umbrella swung around. With some more work shopping and digging into Nesbit’s life, this feisty company of artists may have a real winner on their hands. The future is bright for this piece. Evelyn Nesbit would be proud.