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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Hundred Dresses

Or: “I’ll never do Nothing again”

It’s tough being a kid. You don’t yet know how to look for answers yet are inundated with questions about the world and your place in it. It’s a time of uncertainty, of indecision of doubt and that can lead children's to do horrible things to each other. There are countless plays about bullying floating around out there but The Hundred Dresses, adapted from the classic by Eleanor Estes, deals with those caught between the victims and their tormentors, those who’d like to help but are afraid to, and so infect the wound with their silence.

One such bystander is Maddie Martin (Eliza Palasz) a quiet, introspective girl from a small town somewhere in the mists yesteryear. She gladly shelters from the politics and persecutions of the school yard under the wing of Peggy (Maggie Monahan) her sunnier and richer friend. Autumn is in the air and brings a new student to Maddie’s 5th grade class, Wanda Petronski (Caitlin Kelley) a polish immigrant anxious to make a new home. The students mock Wanda for her broken English and her hand-me-down clothes but most of all for her claim that she has a hundred beautiful dresses stashed away at home. As the teasing grows more venomous Maddie has the choice of standing up for the new comer or remaining in the safety of the way things have always been.

These dark and bitter struggles against right and wrong seem out of place in the gentle world crafted for our benefit: the sky seems bluer that cut sapphire, the loitering leaves (gilded by the loving hand of Nick Raef) shimmer with an unnatural beauty, Cassie Bower’s sensible and neat dresses and sweaters seem to have stripped off the backs of Norman Rockwell characters, and the music numbers are soothing or full of simple rhythms that will bounce in your head all day. But director Rives Collins keeps in careful balance the joys of childhood (the unquestioning friendships, the buds or romances, and small prides and joys) with a full knowledge that the world skipping games and secret handshakes can be status obsessed and byzantine as the Elizabethan Court.

Collins plays his story out expertly, never too moralistic, never too childish, never to terrifying or sharp edged. He has also, and I cannot stress how remarkable it is to see this from the rows, created a family from his ensemble. Adults and Children all love to be up there and in each others company, which does not obstruct them from heaping cruelties on each other. Monahan seems like a genuinely lovely person, but she plays the mid twentieth century Mean Girl, with grimace worthy glee. Of course it’s not that Peggy is a monster in a satin bow but that she is so self absorbed, so certain where others are uncertain of the order of the world that she seeks to grind away anything out of the ordinary, and carries her classmates along with her. Kelley, ducking and dodging like a wounded puppy, always coming back for more in spite of abuse also manages to give us flashes of Wanda’s hidden depths that begin to emerge towards the plays end. Palasz, possessed of a sweet, carrying voice also bears her soul to us, in a modest fashion, with the little facial twists of joy and disappointment. Her self discovery is slow, but when it manifests itself you want to raise a banner and sound a fanfare, “here is a good woman, who we should all take example from”.

The Hundred Dresses will satisfy both the children who come to see it and the adults who accompany them: the former get to stare wide eyed into the magical world of Rives Collins, and the later can look back on their own schoolhouse traumas and feel some vindication that those deadly moments of silence can yet be redeemed. It’s charming, spritely, lightly edged, and a joy to see.

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