South Beach Comedy Festival: Mad Cat Theatre Turns a Tragic Fashion Tale Into Laughs
On the surface, British fashion muse Isabella Blow did not lead a very comical life. A fashion editor of the glossy magazine Tatler and the discoverer of acclaimed designer Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy, Blow -- AKA "Issi" -- was disowned by her parents and suffered from nearly lifelong clinical depression worsened by infertility, electroshock therapy, and an ovarian cancer diagnosis. She attempted suicide six times -- not limited to sleeping pills, horse tranquilizers, car crashes, and drowning -- before succeeding the seventh time by ingesting weed killer.
Charming Acts of Misery's Jessica Farr.
So a script about Blow's life, which reached its painful end in 2007, doesn't seem appropriate for a laugh riot such as the South Beach Comedy Festival. But Jessica Farr's play Charming Acts of Misery will kick off the festival Wednesday, April 17, as the Mad Cat Theatre Company's annual SoBe Comedy Fest production. According to director Paul Tei, the humor will transcend the pain.
"There's a lot of natural comedy in certain aspects of her life," he says. "There is something funny about wanting to kill yourself and not getting it right six times; there's a natural comedic vein there. When her sister discovered her on the final suicide attempt, Issi's concern was that she hadn't drunk enough weed killer. When she broke her ankles on the second suicide attempt, she was devastated because she couldn't wear high heels anymore. Before she went to kill herself [and succeeded], she said, 'I'm going shopping.' In all of those things, for me, there's comedy there. And for the British, especially from a theatrical standpoint, there's an ability to walk that fine line between tragedy and comedy that I think we're hopefully finding in this piece."
Farr, who started out with a "fashion crush" on Blow, is quick to point out Samuel Beckett's famous quote from his play Endgame: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness."
"She had such a great sense of humor herself," says Farr, a Mad Cat company member who, like Tei, has relocated to Los Angeles. "I'm not laughing at her, but I think she would have looked back at a lot of events in her life in her ghoulish fashion as some kind of sick joke that was just great and wonderful and such a surprising act of juxtaposition. I feel like she was the Edith Piaf of the fashion world; she was a train wreck, but remembered in a lovely way."
Farr and Tei concocted the idea for Charming Acts of Misery in a brainstorming session involving Google and Wikipedia. But Farr took over the sole writing duty, conceptualizing the play -- which runs about 40 minutes -- as a fever-dream flashback of Blow's life that runs through her head after she has taken the weed killer. (A longer version of Charming Acts of Misery is expected to enjoy a full run at Mad Cat this summer.)
The microbudget performances will take place at Backstage @ the Fillmore, a limited rehearsal space with no lighting grid. There will be virtually no props, and even the costumes will be minimalist.