It’s tough to appreciate from the remove of 70 years and a translation from the Portuguese what about Nelson Rodrigues’ multilayered The Wedding Dress was so controversial in its time. Appearing first in 1943, the piece is credited with freeing Brazilian theater from the constraints of naturalism and introducing nonlinear storytelling, shifting perspectives, an acknowledgment of the existence of sex, and the visual vocabulary of expressionist filmmaking to the playmaker’s toolbox in that country. Rodrigues earned the attention of Brazil’s censors for his trouble.
His seminal mystery/romance/psychodrama is more than a little forbidding. A young woman, Alaide, is struck by a car. While surgeons try to save her life, she stretches out on the astral plane, making contact with Madame Clessi, a courtesan who was murdered by a jealous adolescent lover decades earlier. The two of them explore Alaide’s possibly violent, possibly criminal romantic history/fantasy life, leaving the audience to sort the memories from the hallucinations.
Rebecca Holderness’s production for the surrealism-loving Spooky Action Theater is a jumble, but it’s a stylish, visually arresting jumble with a trio of compelling performances at its center. To what extent Mundy Spears’ Alaide is a femme fatale in her waking life is unclear, but in the realm of her fantasies, she vamps it up to 11, and it’s fun to watch Spears channel Jessica Rabbit. She has a volatile chemistry with Randolph Curtis Rand, who appears alternately as Alaide’s fiancée, her husband, and her lover. Rand has an unstable quality that suggests a dangerous guy successfully impersonating a civilized, well-mannered one. As Madame Clessi, Dane Figueroa Edidi makes for an appropriately impish spirit-guide.
Vicki R. Davis’ set looks like a gallery installation, situating a horizontal lattice of steel pipes in the center of a white-walled, white-floored void. There’s a box camera and a floor-standing globe and a steamer trunk. Black-and-white projections, sometimes displayed on a scrim and sometimes on the walls of the stage, reinforce the notion that dream logic is the only logic that matters in this realm. Erik Teague’s costumes seem to hail from different eras—pinstriped suits and fedoras for the men, frilly dancehall-style dresses and stockings for the women—and they are, like the rest of the visual palette, immaculate. Like a Borges short story or a Buñuel film, The Wedding Dress is better appreciated as a rich sensual experience than as a semi-opaque narrative one.