FROM her ability alone to summon mental muscle, actress Cherie Gil, as Vogue editor in chief Diana Vreeland, was impressive.
Under the no-nonsense, pared-to-the-bone direction of Bart Guingona, Gil disappears into the role, as she breathes life into the once influential and larger-than-life fashion doyenne as envisioned by playwrights Mary Louis Wilson and Mark Hampton in “Full Gallop.”
I caught Gil’s performance yesterday, March 22, at the RCBC Theater in Makati, and was enthralled from start to finish by the entire production. The show, which was sponsored by Bulgari and Hermes, was dubbed as Philippine Daily Inquirer night. You can still catch “Full Gallop” tonight, as Guingona and company stage it for the last time.
Wearing nothing but a soft, all-black chiffon outfit with a built-in cape and matching kitten-heel sandals, Gil had no one but herself, her diamond-encrusted Serpenti bracelet and necklace from Bulgari and the one-woman play’s snappy, tongue-in-cheek dialog to rely on to hold the audience’s attention.
And she succeeded mightily, as she tried to evoke how Vreeland’s life and even thinking must have been like soon after she was fired as editor in chief of Vogue in 1971.
Not only were Gil’s lines kilometric, they were littered with ebbs and tides, as the character took the audience on a journey of her career, family life and idiosyncrasies, including her preference for peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and her nonchalant admission of how plain she looked next to her beautiful sister and dashing husband.
Timing was of the essence, and Gil delivered her lines and displayed her character’s emotions with surgical precision and pinpoint accuracy.
It was because of the realization that she had very little going for her in the looks department, which Vreeland herself admitted in her memoirs “D.V.,” which led her to embrace early on everything that was beautiful, including nuances in colors and other people’s quaint behavior and manner of dressing.
No eye candy
Although she was no eye candy herself during her youth, this didn’t stop her from producing eye candy later on for other people through her visual compositions at Harper’s Bazaar and later at Vogue. Vreeland not only adored fashion, she lived and breathed the fantasy that came with it with such flourish and conviction that people couldn’t help but stop and stare at her and her work.
But her keen eye went beyond appearances. Vreeland was also an expert in probing into other people’s characters, as suggested in the play when she invited both Coco Chanel and Helena Rubenstein over for dinner.
The two guests, no great beauties themselves, said Vreeland, secluded themselves in one of the bedrooms of their host’s New York City apartment and talked almost nonstop for four hours while standing up “like men.”
In Vreeland’s eyes, Chanel and Rubenstein were epitomes of strength and the power of conviction, which she herself no doubt possessed as she steered Vogue from being a frumpy society monthly into a must-read fashion bible filled with aspirational and dreamy images by legendary photographers she encouraged and pushed to become famous such as Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn.
And like all works about the rise and fall of legends, “Full Gallop” is again a cautionary tale of how fleeting power is. As the imaginary Vreeland discovers, she suddenly loses all her so-called friends, even her cook, as soon as she steps down from power. And what’s true in New York, the supposed center of the universe, also applies to a backwater like Manila.
Vreeland may have had loads of revolutionary ideas during her time, but even someone as charming and bullheaded as her couldn’t defy and save her career, as Inquirer Lifestyle editor Thelma San Juan put it, from “the end of an era.”
Indeed, as the play underscores, no one, not even someone as brilliant as Vreeland, is indispensable. But nothing or no one, to resort to another cliché, could put a good woman down for long.
Paean to reinvention
“Full Gallop” is also a paean to survival and reinvention, as the play closes before Vreeland finally accepts a position as consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, but only on her own terms.
When I first heard a few weeks back that Gil had taken on the challenge of playing Vreeland, I initially thought that it was a stretch. Tall and sinewy despite having reached 50, the actress, in my mind, was the complete opposite of the rather short and plain-looking (that adjective again) late icon.
Was I wrong! After watching her in “Full Gallop,” I dare say that no Filipino actress today could have played Vreeland better and with such panache and relish like Gil did.
With no one to interact with except the voice on the intercom belonging to French assistant Yvonne (played by a French-speaking Giselle Toengi), Gil owned the entire stage. For two hours or so, I forgot that the actress was much taller, younger and definitely more attractive than the character she was playing.
Slightly hunched, as we’ve come to associate with not a few elderly women (and men), Gil as Vreeland was equal parts steely and vulnerable—a total departure from the one-dimensional Lavinia-type roles she has done to death on movies and TV, which required her to simply roll her eyes, raise an eyebrow and say “well, well, well” before slapping anyone who displeases her. No! She was definitely much, much more than that.
Although no one, not even the jet-setting fashionistas in the audience, had probably worked, much less met Vreeland when she was alive and at the top of her game, Gil was able to convince and make us understand who the woman was and what made her tick if only for a night.
To paraphrase Vreeland’s immortal line “pink is the navy blue of India,” Gil is now the every (strong) woman of Philippine stage.