Review: Dirty Blonde (Boho Theatre Ensemble)

  
  

Playing dress-up with Mae West

  
  

Anne Sheridan Smith, David Tibble and Nicholas Bailey

   
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Dirty Blonde
     
Written by Claudia Shear
Directed by Steve Genovese
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There’s only one bona fide cross-dressing scene in Claudia Shear’s romantic comedy, but somehow the entire Bohemian Theatre Ensemble production resembles a drag show. Maybe that’s due to the inherent campiness of its central character, film legend Mae West. Maybe it’s because nearly every other character, past and present, actor or non-actor, speaks with a larger-than-life showbiz dialect. Or maybe it’s because, like a drag show, Boho’s play is saturated in self-awareness, nudging reminders of its own innocence and desires to be bigger, glossier, and sillier than ‘the real thing.’

Anne Sheridan Smith Those aren’t bad qualities for a West send-up. When a handsome young man (Nicholas Bailey) gives a warm little speech to open the show before plucking out an upbeat ditty at his upright piano, expectations for heightened reality and playfulness are set out. But West’s jovial and frivolous journey from vaudeville troublemaker to adored movie quip-machine fills only half of Dirty Blonde. That half is fun to watch. For reasons left unclear, Shear gives equal time to a modern-day romance between two star-crossed West fanatics, and their courtship is where director Stephen M. Genovese’s play begins to tear at the seams.

Celebrating her icon’s birthday, Jo (Anne Sheridan Smith, who does double duty as Mae) visits West’s crypt, where she bumps into Charlie, a skittish loner who works at the New York Public Library Film Archives. Realizing their mutual infatuation, Charlie and Jo become friends.

Ambiguously defined friends, at least, and that’s the crux of their story. When Charlie sneaks Jo into work to get stoned and poke fun at West’s reprehensible latter work, it’s not spelled out whether they’re platonically bonding, becoming each other’s fag & hag sidekicks, or dating. Charlie’s sexuality is intentionally left up in the air (though David Tibble plays him as a raging queen afraid of his own shadow), opening the opportunity for some intriguing, provocative ideas. Pot gives way to a hand on the leg; booze encourages an attempted kiss in a cab.

If the present-day scenes were more thought out and the characters more intricately drawn, they’d have enough legs for their own play. As it stands, their purpose is mostly just to mark time between historical anecdotes and amusing fictionalizations of the eponymous doydy blonde actress. Smith’s workable impression and slick delivery of classic scandalous one-liners makes the West plot watchable, but there’s only so much she can do to salvage Jo, especially opposite Tibble’s mealy depiction of Charlie.

     
Anne Sheridan Smith David Tibble and Anne Sheridan Smith

Which brings us to the cross-dressing scene: the play’s climax, and the most indicative moment of where the production’s faults are. Dramatically, one of three things typically occur when you put a man in women’s clothing.

1) shallow hilarity: video example

2) a solidification of identity, where supposedly ‘unnatural’ acts appears more natural and appropriate: example

3) an additional layering of an already enigmatic character: example

Revealing himself to Jo in a dress, Charlie educes none of these. The moment is stilted and awkward—it’s clear Genovese was going for liberating and cathartic. A more affecting scene depicts a young Charlie donning the gown to serve as a doppelganger for the ailing West at an appearance. Facing the crowds for her, Charlie comes into his own, and favor that’s savory for its dream realized and bitter for its underlying necessity. By this point, we’ve already spent so much time with future Charlie that his character is already defined, and for the most part, unpleasant.

If only the stage and script were built big enough for both queens.

  
  
Rating: ★★
     
  

Nicholas Bailey, Anne Sheridan Smith and David Tibble

 

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REVIEW: Escape from Happiness (Infamous Commonwealth)

Uneven production still allows for entertaining conclusion

 

Infamous Commonwealth Escape for Happiness Press Photo 2

   
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents
   
Escape From Happiness
   
Written by George F. Walker
Directed by
Genevieve Thompson
at the
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets:  $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

I am not an elderly person. But I’m not completely cool with starting an almost 3-hour show at 8:30, which is the case with Infamous Commonwealth’s Escape from Happiness by Canadian George F. Walker. The major problem with that almost 3-hour show is that it drags, so when I walked at around 11:20 it felt like it was much later.

Starting-time aside, the production isn’t without merit. Although the laughs dip, Walker’s black comedy has some extremely funny moments. The play throws the audience into the thickets of a very dysfunctional family, but one where all the progeny visit often. Escape from happiness posterEveryone, from mom to dad to the trio of sisters, have their little neuroses and quirks, a few worse than others. A product of the early-90’s obsession with petty crime, slacker philosophy, and guns, Escape from Happiness is a chapter in a cycle set in Walker’s old neighborhood in Toronto. There are several untangled knots tied in the plot that make it feel like a link in a chain instead of its own complete whole. There’s an occasional focus on vigilantism and mention of how awful the surrounding neighborhood is, but those points don’t mesh well with the rest of the familial-centered story. Walker stretches his characters and world too far and too thinly for us to really clamp onto any one character. The focus moves from sister to sister without choosing a protagonist. Reeling, complicated family dramas can be brilliant (August: Osage County, anyone?), but Walker just can’t keep our interest going for all his characters throughout the course of the play.

The mission of Infamous Commonwealth is to visibly envelope themselves in one theme each season. The concentration this year is redemption, which is a pretty obvious theme in the play, directed by Genevieve Thompson. Tom (Jim Farrell), the father, is infested with mental illness and shunned and despised by over half his immediate family. The problem is that his past sins didn’t seem worthy of such acidic hate, a failing of writing and direction. Mom (Barbara Anderson) seems to live in willful obliviousness to everything, and the three sisters pick sides and pick on each other. All of the in-fighting is framed within a story about small-time dealers and crooked cops, an external disturbance which feels forced.

The cast has a hard time connecting and building off of each other. Anderson, especially, feels fundamentally false, going through rehearsed motions instead of breathing life into the character. She plays at the crazy and ends up feeling safe. She’s joined by several supporting cast members, like Anne Sheridan Smith and Joe Ciresi, who don’t listen to the other actors on-stage.

Infamous Commonwealths Escape for Happiness Press Photo

As the youngest sister and the focus of the first chunk of the story, Whitney Hayes is fine. The character just becomes increasingly boring and unimportant, and Hayes has much less to do after intermission. The real glue that keeps this show together is Nancy Friedrich as the clingy middle sister, Mary Ann. She has a schizophrenic monologue in the middle of the play that is the funniest thing in the production. She’s mousey and prone to rambling, nailing Walker’s sense of humor. Unfortunately, she functions as a bit part for most of the production. As her sister Elizabeth, Jennifer Mathews takes over for the last half of the play and handles it pretty well, although the character isn’t nearly as funny as Mary Ann. Jim Farrell and the hapless Stephen Dunn are also noteworthy, adding their own comic touches when they can.

Thompson’s production, maybe because of Infamous Commonwealth’s love of themes, sheds some humor in order to clarify the message. And Walker’s writing is dense and unevenly paced. However, the humor blasts through in the second act, and the cast comes together to make it work. Comedies, even black comedies, need to roll along at a quick clip, and this Escape from Happiness lumbers under its own weight.

  
   
Rating: ★★
    
      

Extra Credit

           
Escape From Happiness cast1 Escape From Happiness cast2 Escape From Happiness cast3 Escape From Happiness cast4 Escape From Happiness cast5

Featuring: Barbara Anderson, Josh Atkins*, Joe Ciresi*, Stephen Dunn*, Jim Farrell, Nancy Friedrich*, Whitney Hayes*, Chris Maher *, Jennifer Mathews* and Anne Sheridan Smith.           *denotes company member

West Stage of the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street.  Running July 10 thru August 8;  Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8:30pm, Sunday 3:30pm

                 
                  

Review: Prologue Theatre’s “Sex” by Mae West

Prologue Theatre’s “Sex” Only Puts Out a Little

 Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 2 (photo by Alix Klingenberg)

Prologue Theatre presents:

Sex

by Mae West
directed by Margo Gray
thru November 21st (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 5 (photo by Alix Klingenberg) I’ve long wanted to see Sex, the play that put Mae West in jail. Mae West was one of America’s great crossover artists, bringing more risqué influences from vaudeville and jazz to the so-called “legitimate” stage on Broadway. She appropriated elements from African-American artists and the drag balls of the Pansy Craze, lifting comic styling wholesale from female impersonators Burt Savoy and Julian Eltinge. For her part, West daringly imported queer culture into the mainstream with her plays The Drag and The Pleasure Man. But then Mae West was about all sex, not just the straight variety.

Prologue Theatre Company is obviously conscious of the historical value of these American theatrical and cultural developments, staging Sex at the turn-of-the-century Gunder Mansion, now serving as the North Lakeside Cultural Center. The play occurs en promenade, an element that both does and doesn’t work for the production. Transitioning the audience from room to room certainly emphasizes shifts in place from Montreal to Trinidad to Connecticut. However, the time it takes for the audience to make it into their seats from one room to the next also produces clumsy delays between scenes and the travel up and down stairs definitely limits accessibility.

What created scandal in West’s time seems tame in ours. Yet Jes Bedwinek, as the savvy working girl Margy Lamont, infuses her leading role with the right amount of suggestiveness. She borrows just enough of West’s timing and inflections without devolving into an utter Mae West caricature–successfully acknowledging her illustrious forebear while at the same time making the role her own. Anne Sheridan Smith molds her role as the philandering society matron Clara Stanton, to be the perfectly balanced foil to Bedwinek’s Margy—just as lusty, yet hemmed in by cultural refinement and conventional restraints. As the doomed prostitute Agnes, Rebecca L. Maudlin brings realism and sympathy to a role that could have been rendered as simply pathetic. It’s a woman’s play, after all; the things of greatest consequence happen to the women characters.

 

Prologue Theatre Co - Sex1 (photo by Alix Klingenberg) Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 3 (photo by Alix Klingenberg)
Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 6 (photo by Alix Klingenberg) Prologue Theatre Co - Sex 4 (Photo by Alix Klingenberg)

Director Margo Gray has honed the cast to adhere to naturalism, as opposed to the heavily stylized acting of West’s era. It’s a choice that definitely scales the production to the more intimate setting of Gunder Mansion, as well as clarifying and updating the play for a modern audience. It’s also a choice that exposes the weaknesses of uneven casting. Gray has brought from her successful run of The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret Sean Patrick Ward (Jimmy Stanton) and Christopher Chamblee (Lt. Gregg), yet many cast performances are too scattershot to convey a cohesive ensemble. Nathan Pease’s turn as Margy’s pimp, Rocky, is sleazy enough yet still doesn’t contain the menace needed to threaten convincingly.

For my money, the audience gets stinted the most during the more vaudevillian portions of the play. The opening of the first scene in Trinidad should shine with musical numbers that warm the audience to Margy’s culminating performance of “Shake That Thing”—a classic Ethel Waters tune that Mae West appropriated. A little more jazz and enthusiasm, as well as a little more shakin’ that thing, might easily make up for musical deficiencies. Or perhaps Tinuade Oyelowo should be given more numbers to rock the audience with that voice of hers. Whatever the case, this is supposed to be the Roaring Twenties, not the Ironic 90’s or the Tight-ass 50’s. It’s not a good sign when there’s more fun to be had listening to the singing of drunken sailors on shore leave.

All in all, the shortcoming’s of Prologue’s production resigns it to community theater status for all their efforts. As Mae would know, it takes performers with a lot more on the ball than this to produce good old-fashioned entertainment.

Rating: ★★

 

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