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One of the epiphanies in my four decades of theatre-going in Los Angeles was the 2003 mounting of Sheila Callaghan’s Shakespearean pastorale Kate Crackernuts by Jessica Kubzansky. It was so fiercely original and so abandoned to its own sometimes obscure inner voice that it encouraged me to connect more intensely to the uniqueness of our local scene, and I started immediately to forage far and wide for further such stimulation.
Her subsequent plays produced here, among them Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), Lascivious Something and Roadkill Confidential, all displayed her peculiar speech and restless exploration of nether crannies of inner experience that illuminate the common quandaries of relating to an often baffling modern world. Callaghan took feminist perceptions and employed them not to instruct or persuade but to raise consciousness to illuminate where we may be, where we are going, and how we might get there. Meanwhile, she has applied her skills in cable, notably as a staff writer on United States of Tara and producer-writer of Shameless.
But her new Everything You Touch may be the breakthrough work Callaghan’s admirers have been waiting for: A brash, even commercial, elaboration of her universal themes in their most complex and daredevil manifestations yet. It takes place both in the now, where Jess (Kirsten Vangsness), a professional tech success otherwise disconnected from herself and others by her battered self-esteem, symbolized but also camouflaged by her discomfort with her body size and impossible notions of beauty, and in the East Village of the 1970s, where avant-garde haute fashion designer Victor (Tyler Pierce), is functioning at the top of his nose-thumbing game yet plagued by doubt about the intrinsic value (and admittedly, the earning power) of his critical success aimed exclusively at the few willing to pay top dollar for clothing no one can wear.
They are contrasting existential crises in wildly distinctive time periods, but this being the theater, there is a common narrative, involving many varieties of self-loathing counterbalanced, by degrees, by creative drive. Jess learns her mother, who she has not seen since leaving home irrevocably at 18, is near death in Arkansas, while Victor becomes enthralled by Louella (Amy French), a contest winner from Arkansas, of unyieldingly common taste and narrow world experience who supplants his longtime muse and soulmate, the hard-edged former model Esme (Kate Maher).
Callaghan cunningly encourages us to maintain the illusion that these are parallel, converging stories, although in her trickster ways, it keeps becoming likelier that the past may be imaginary history, a memory that could well be a fantasy, or is the pipe dream the journey Jess takes by car with Victor to Little Rock, in which he bestows upon her a makeover not just of style, but of her sense of self? Some, all or none: In the elegant patterning of the writing, all possibilities are equally convincing or, at least, convincingly inventive. Among her many subtle gambits: Faustian motifs that run multiple directions, like a reversible jacket, and multiple mirrored invocations of the Galatea myth that crunch and overlap like tiny twists in a kaleidoscope.
I had the luck to hear the play in a reading at the Boston Court a couple years ago, and while impressed, it is a wonderment what Kubzansky has wrought with its physical realization. The quirky dialogue requires just as much deft intonation as David Mamet, with which it otherwise has nothing else in common save its individuality. The director has the flexible control to indulge in extended moments of hauteur-like stateliness without slackening the pace. And above all, the design is one of the most extensively expressive of any in recent memory, especially for a smaller theater. Most especially, the dizzying array of costumes, more than 130 of them for eight players, every single one of them a revelation of character, mood and period, comprise a positively protean achievement by designer Jenny Foldenauer (who did one of last season’s standout shows, Our Class). There’s hasn’t been such a riot of sublimely extravagant yet needle-sharp precision in stage clothing since the revival of Follies.
The cast is so superb that even the omnipresent models, both real and ghostly (another echo of Follies), stir our empathy. Vangsness, a longtime mainstay of Theatre of NOTE as well as Garcia on Criminal Minds, wrings out every potential character cliché in her deeply personal incarnation of a standard type in contemporary comedy and drama, while Pierce displays the arrogance and insecurity of a truly creative man with old-school dash, an antihero capable of both superficiality and stature simultaneously. Yet the most convincing range and layered writing are reserved for Maher’s Esme, a caricature of Manhattan bile and self-absorption who undergoes perhaps the largest odyssey of transformation of all.
At intermission, I was convinced Everything You Touch was well on its way to being the best new play of the year. The second act, however, contents itself with being merely excellent, as plot strands work themselves out, and the almost impossible energy and intricate patterning of the first act must move towards something approaching resolutions. This piece is just too good to settle for repeated tonic chords at its climax. Nevertheless, this thought-provoking play takes its themes of thwarted intimacies to exciting, dramatically vivid, places to impart fresh discernment to the alienation playing within and without us all.
Venue: The Theatre @ Boston Court, Pasadena (runs through May 11)
Cast: Kirsten Vangsness, Tyler Pierce, Kate Maher, Amy French, Arthur Keng, Allegra Rose Edwards, Chelsea Fryer, Candice Lam
Director: Jessica Kubzansky
Playwright: Sheila Callaghan
Costume designer: Jenny Foldenauer
Set designer: Francois-Pierre Couture
Lighting designer: Jeremy Pivnick
Music & sound designr: John Zalewski
Presented by The Theatre @ Boston Court, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
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