Clothes Make the Woman

Linda Andresano showcases her versatility in 'Dressing the Part.'

Given the shortage of good nurses in this country, I'd hate to suggest that Linda Andresano pull the sheet over her job at St. Mary's Hospital. But Andresano could probably do almost as much good if she devoted herself full-time to acting. Her self-produced one-woman show at the Temple of Music and Art Cabaret Theatre, Dressing the Part, is a showcase of her versatility that ought to keep casting directors romancing her for months to come.

Andresano plays at least 17 characters in the course of an hour--or, more accurately, she plays one woman exploring 16 characters she's seen on stage, or finds within herself.

Primarily, she's Missy, a costume mistress sorting through the togs and accessories of the theater where she's worked for years, a house that now is closing forever. Mousey Missy is a seemingly unremarkable person with little evident ambition. But now, as she must discard most of the theater's magical costumes and consider what to do with her life, it becomes apparent that she's absorbed much from the actors and costumes she's mingled with. Missy tries on a shawl, or a pair of shoes, or a feather boa, and transforms herself into the characters she's observed so closely.

Dressing the Part synthesizes elements of two plays in which Andresano has appeared in the past year and a half at Live Theatre Workshop, her home base. Missy is a very, very distant relative of the quite different title character in The Dresser, and Andresano obviously honed her multi-character quick-change skills in The Dining Room. Furthermore, many of the personas she dons as easily as hats seem ghosts from Andresano's past productions. For instance, her richest, most sensitive and most beautifully delivered character, an Irishwoman named Moira Kathleen O'Hagen, could well have been a figure on the periphery of J.M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World, in which Andresano appeared four years ago.

This isn't to suggest that Andresano as a playwright is derivative. She's merely taking theatrical archetypes and making them her own. Sometimes she does this broadly, as with her cliché-ridden diva, but more often her characterizations are meticulous and fresh, however familiar they may seem.

Andresano delivers almost every character with remarkable detail. She portrays a 5-year-old girl not so much with a babyish voice but with a preschooler's weird, fidgety, gnarled hand gestures. And she perches a yarmulke on her head, slouches forward, lets her facial features droop and waves a finger in the air, and conveys "elderly Jewish man" even before she opens her mouth.

What issues from her mouth, though, is remarkable in its diversity and precision. She's got the English down pat, from rhyming Cockney slang to upper-class hauteur. She gets all the nasal vowels and every strangled "r" just right in her French-maid accent, and her Italian-American kid bumbling toward grace on a New York subway seems true to life, at least if you believe old movies.

One of the trickiest accents of all belongs to Violet Louise Parker Lee Polk Branch Hitchcock Finch, a multiply married 80-year-old woman of Louisiana. Andresano doesn't fall back on conventional, vague Southernisms; she has a fine ear for what John Kennedy Toole called "that accent that occurs south of New Jersey only in New Orleans, that Hoboken near the Gulf of Mexico."

Perhaps someday Andresano will devote an entire evening to one of her more fully conceived characters, such as Moira Kathleen O'Hagen or Violet Louise Parker etc. Slamming through 17 personalities in an hour is certainly impressive, but exhausting for everyone in the room, and inevitably a few characters seem to have little more purpose than letting Andresanno show off yet another accent.

Still, Dressing the Part is about everything Missy finds within her, even though much of it is drawn from the fantasy world around her. "The costume piece changes the actor and the actor changes the costume piece forever," she says more than once. It's all changed Missy as well, although she may not realize it. The theater can have remarkable healing power, and that's a force wielded with expert, gentle authority by nurse-turned-actress Linda Andresano.

Dressing the Part runs February 8-10 at 8 p.m. and February 11 at 3 p.m. at the Temple of Music and Art Cabaret Theatre, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets cost $16. For reservations, call 622-2823.