Thursday, May 10, 2018

The 100 Dresses

Annika Sadowski, Summer Schroeder, Gracie Morinishi, Isabella Villagomez, Nic Gantzer, Les Ico

By Tina Arth

A few months ago, I got a phone call from an old friend. She was doing a 12-step program, and had reached the step where she needed to apologize to people she had hurt in the past. Despite the passage of so many years, I knew before she said anything else that she was going to talk about a time in junior high when she was part of a group that ostracized and mocked me for several months – my only real experience as a victim of bullying. The whole thing somehow passed away and we resumed our friendship, but I never forgot the sense of inexplicable shame – and she had obviously never forgotten the shame she later felt for her behavior.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production of The 100 Dresses, adapted by Mary Hall Surface from Eleanor Estes’ original book, quietly but powerfully explores the way bullying affects all of us – the victim, the family, bystanders, and perpetrators. While the show is clearly aimed at children, it is equally clear that its timely messages about cruelty, and xenophobia in particular, are appropriate for audiences of all ages. Director Sarah Ominski understands the show’s themes and draws solid performances from her cast.

The story is set in a small New England town, circa 1938. A family of Polish immigrants, the Petronskis, have moved to the outskirts of town. They are poor, and they talk funny – worst of all, young Wanda Petronski only has one dress, which she wears to school every day. Challenged by a clique of local girls, Wanda claims to have 100 dresses, which triggers “the game.” Goaded by ringleader Peggy Thomas, the girls constantly demand information from Wanda about her dresses, and she haltingly gives them details about the beautiful gowns she claims to have at home. Peggy’s best friend, Maddie, is a reluctant participant in the game – she, too, is poor, and she is afraid to speak up for Wanda for fear that the wealthier girls will turn on her, too. One day Wanda does not show up at school, and the girls learn that her father has suddenly moved to a larger city in order to protect his family from the hostility with which they have been met in the small town. The show concludes by delivering its ultimate message, as Maddie courageously attempts to atone for her previous silence by apologizing and by speaking out against mindless cruelty.

Young Annika Sadowski is unforgettable as Wanda, the sad-eyed outsider who patiently endures the girls’ taunting. Every child in the audience (and every adult) who has ever stood on the outside looking in can relate to her misery, and respond to the mixture of despair and a powerful optimism that she can somehow fit in. Summer Schroeder’s casually vicious Peggy also rings true, with a thoughtless arrogance that never lets down for even a moment.  Right in the middle is Isabella Villagomez’ lovely portrayal of Maddie. Villagomez’ transition from the conflicted bystander and reluctant participant to fierce social justice warrior is paced perfectly, and she brings the audience with her through the character’s evolution.

Ted Schroeder is surprisingly effective as Wanda’s dad – he manages not only the Polish accent but also the attitude of the downtrodden but protective father flawlessly. Les Ico and Nic Gantzer do a fine job of portraying mischievous bad boys Jack and Willie, and the children in the audience clearly responded to their over-the-top hijinks. However, I found it a bit jarring to watch two adults playing roles as peers of the four young girls – even if the acting had been a bit spottier I would have preferred to see the roles played by a couple of rowdy pre-teens.

While the costumers are not called upon to provide 100 actual dresses, designers Jamie Hellerman and Sandi King have captured the spirit of the late Depression and expressed through costume the class differences that so starkly divided society during that troubled time.  The set, like most at Beaverton Civic Theatre, is detailed yet simple enough to allow for rapid scene changes; Alex Woodard’s set design maximizes the small space available in the auditorium.

It is tempting, and to some extent appropriate, to view a show like The 100 Dresses in the context of the current concern over cyberbullying – and it certainly gives the kids in the audience a framework through which to view the story’s multiple themes. However, a secondary but critical message must be the foolishness of xenophobia in a rapidly changing world, where children need to grow up embracing, rather than fearing, diversity.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of The 100 Dresses runs through Saturday, May 19th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 8:00 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sunday, May 13th.

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