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REVIEW: Velvet Swing Rips the Curtains Down (Umbrella Collective)

A promotional image for the Umbrella Collective’s production of Velvet Swing, which opened Friday at Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, MN.

On Tuesday, The Guardian ran a piece entitled From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, Why Are Dead Women’s Bodies Still Being Used as Entertainment? One of its arguments is that theatre, like much of society, sensationalizes and exploits women’s bodies while claiming to empower them. By focusing on physical acts of victimization, the argument goes, the genre as whole reduces many supposedly featured women to one-note victims and shallow characterizations. This sort of skeptical look at the writing of history is front and center in the Umbrella Collective’s Velvet Swing, now playing at Bryant Lake-Bowl, which examines the life of Evelyn Nesbit through an ensemble of actors who each play a different characterization of Nesbit.

If you’re not a fan of nontraditional storytelling and fourth wall breaking, Velvet Swing will try and a make a convert out of you. The ensemble of Meredith Kind, Natavia Lewis, Antonia Perez, Jessie Scarborough-Ghent, and ​Mickaylee Shaughnessy play both Nesbit the character(s) and Nesbit the person as they sketch out her/their life story. Much of this builds to the events in which she was infamously involved – sexual assault, her husband’s public murder of a famous architect, and the ensuing trial, to name a few – and Nesbit being forced to relive said uncomfortable events under a very male gaze. Michelle Hernick at the piano provides a touch of ragtime and a few poignant (and pointed) remarks. The music is a noted and valuable addition to the show since its workshop in 2017.

The cast of the Umbrella Collective’s Velvet Swing. Photo by Kelly Huang.

One thing that this show does not do is confine itself to inner monologues and outer dialogue. In vaudevillian fashion, the five women playing Nesbit argue over who has to perform what, trade off as various odd side characters, and tilt a lamp to shine on the murky waters of reliving trauma and describing sexual assault. And then there’s the media feeding frenzy. You never quite know how a scene is going to go, even if you know the basic elements of the story, which injects a certain novelty. While the ensemble responsibilities are evenly split and carried, a few faces stick out with the unusual personages that they bring to life when not playing Nesbit, such as Mickaylee Shaughnessy’s portrayal of the very eccentric (to say the least) Harry Kendall Thaw, about whom the truth really was stranger than fiction.

Of all the many threads in this story, the ones that co-directors and story designers Megan Clark and Alana Horton seem to have latched onto the most are about Evelyn Nesbit’s loss of personal control and agency: to financial straits, to an invasive legal system, to media portrayals, and more. It’s an indictment of sorts, engagingly delivered, and good conversation fodder. However, the across-the-board choice of a delivery style with voices that are more raised than projecting obscures some of the more powerful subtle moments in the narrative. When you finally get one of those quieter, more intimate scenes right before the show ends, it makes you wish that these shadings and layers had been used more and earlier.

Velvet Swing runs though April 27 at Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine