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: Ghosts (Boho Theatre)

    

The Burdens of Shame and Seasonal Affective Disorder

 

Saren Nofs-Snyer and Cast

  
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
  
Ghosts
  
by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by
Lanford Wilson
Directed by
Peter Marston Sullivan
through July 18th  | 
tickets: $17-$20 |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Perhaps most of Henrik Ibsen’s work can be summed up thus: a study of driven, lusty and regretful Norwegian birds, trapped in their gilded (sometimes not so gilded) bourgeois cage. Hence, the removal of the fourth wall, which isn’t really removed, just made transparent–theatrically turned to glass in order to examine these lovely, Saren Nofs-Snyder and Steve O'Connell haunted Norwegians under glass, as if they were the subjects of scientific inquiry. Make no mistake, the fourth wall is just as imprisoning as the other three and perhaps it is crueler, since it allows for the audience’s voyeuristic attentions.

Well, since there is no escape for the birds, you might as well watch. Plus, what could be more diverting than a family’s shameful secrets? Perhaps the biggest challenge for Bohemian Theatre’s production of Ghosts is to make the burdens of shame, judgment and disgrace experienced by these characters as immediate and tangible to the audience as it is for them.

Peter Marston Sullivan’s direction is meticulous and forthright; it gives Ghosts’ excellent cast the right structure to work their naturalist chops to the max; and the new translation that they work with by Lanford Wilson is fresh and clear. Yet the overall production, while artful and technically accurate, still feels far too removed and lacking in immediacy. Make no mistake—this is a jewel of a production, a pretty jewel with interesting, exact and glimmer facets. But it also misses that special something that compels a viewer toward empathy; it feels far too removed in its period setting to involve the audience in its web of secrets and lies, judgments and shame.

If there is one thing that Boho’s particular experiment/production proves, it’s that what scandalized the general public a little more than a century ago no longer comes close to shocking us. Bohemian prodigal son Oswald Alving (Charles Riffenburg) spars with Reverend Manders (Steve O’Connell) over the naturalness and appropriateness of family life among his unmarried Parisian artistic friends. But, in spite of its power to scandalize in 19th-century terms, heterosexual cohabitation without “the benefit of clergy” no longer raises an eyebrow in these sexually amorphous times. Love the 60’s Sexual Revolution or hate it, the bohemian life isn’t bohemian anymore; it’s mainstream.

Even a boyfriend or husband enjoying pornography doesn’t hold the charge that it once did. Now, a boss cheating on his wife with his assistant, under the same roof as the wife; then marrying her pregnant ass off to someone else—that definitely still holds potent sleazy power. All the same, bosses and their mistresses are such a common alternative to heterosexual monogamy they practically deserve their own healthcare plan.

 

Sean Thomas and Florence Ann Romano Charles Riffenburg, Saren Nofs-Snyder, Steve O'Connell
Florence Ann Romano and Sean Thomas Charles Riffenburg and Saren Nofs-Snyder 2

Finally, Ibsen’s hint of incest in this play could tantalize our modern audience, but even that scandalous element becomes diffused when our tragic heroine, Mrs. Helen Alving (Saren Nofs-Snyder) considers the potential of marriage between her son Oswald to her maid, his secret half-sister, Regina (Florence Ann Romano). For her, it would be no worse than any everyday match between first cousins in rural Norway.

So much for sexual shock and awe.  So the question needs to be asked: what remains now to draw audiences to this work again? When all else fails, try the relationships. There is a time to produce an elegant tribute to an old master and then there’s a time to present the play for what it is—melodrama. Sophisticated, psychologically adept and intellectually stimulating melodrama, but melodrama nevertheless—we have come to observe these birds in order to learn the heart’s filthy lesson.

Sadly, the central relationship in this play between Mrs. Alving and Reverend Manders just doesn’t have the chemistry to propel this play’s excessive exposition forward. O’Connell knows how to strike Manders’ stiff, controlling and judgmental pose but one finds, through the bulk of the play, not enough contrasting nuance within his performance as to self-doubt within the good reverend over the validity of his own views.

Mrs. Alving has grown in her intellectual thinking since the first day she ran, a shocked and impressionable newlywed, from her perverse husband’s side to Reverend Manders for succor and advice. But Manders’ parochial views on sexuality, family and duty seem to have frozen him in time. Any possible romance between them becomes thwarted by a horrible lack of timing. Yet in some ways this play is about a little revolution in the reverend’s perspective—brought on by Mrs. Alving’s disabuse of his man-crush on her husband. It’s a change in Manders that is too little, too late for Mrs. Charles Riffenburg and Saren Nofs-Snyder Alving to reap anything like the hope of love in her life. I am afraid that O’Connell’s final reveal of Manders’ feelings for Mrs. Alving, in the second half of this one-act, is also too little, too late. Underneath the stiff control that the Reverend demonstrates and advocates, the audience still must see some turmoil of the uncertain man.

Likewise, Riffenburg’s performance of Oswald seems to lack the anxiety of yearning, love-deprived, and blighted youth. Even in Ibsen’s time, the stereotype of the bohemian artist dying from an unnamable, congenital disease was, unfortunately, a cliché, and now it is even more so. Riffenburg has the burden of making this cliché breathe with anxious life, but unfortunately his performance just doesn’t reach the mark. Here is a role rich in longing—longing for life, for freedom, for truth, beauty and, most of all, the sun. “The bad boy is back,” Oswald announces to Reverend Manders as he makes his first entrance. But Oswald is also the SAD boy and by that I mean Seasonal Affective Disorder. Ibsen is so psychologically correct in assigning this condition at a powerful metaphorical place in this drama—unnamed in his own time, much like Oswald’s congenital illness. Despite his youth, Ozzie is resolutely certain about his own views on life in his verbal joust with Reverend Manders. But his uncertainty lies in whether he was ever loved, either by his perverse father or his duty-bound mother, and that should visibly inform his drive for life at its premature end.

That leaves Nofs-Snyder to carry this shows dilemmas of shame, guilt and judgment—especially everyone’s judgment on her choices and behavior under exacting marital conditions. We are fortunate to have a grand actress in this role. Her portrayal of Mrs. Alving virtually writhes with adamant conviction, disgraced and humiliated position, loss of real love or understanding, and total loss of control over the essential affairs and relationships in her life. Dressed in a striking brocaded red gown (Sarah Putnam, costume design), Mrs. Alving comes across as the queen bee of this production—and a brilliant, poor, haunted queen bee she is.

As for the supporting roles, Sean Thomas as Jakkob Engstrand and Florence Ann Romano as Regina Engstrand make a great sleazy father and gold-digging daughter duo. Thomas’ Engstrand is a delightfully cunning Norwegian step-n-fetchit. Who knew that such hackneyed roles were also written for white people?

The production values for this black box theater offer highly imaginative, cunningly wrought and absolutely laudable effects. Anders Jacobson’s scenic design, Katy Peterson’s lighting, and Lewis Miller’s sound design produce an absolute feast for eye and ear. They, like the set, are a house on fire.

Boho Theatre’s production is so lovely to look at, so correct in execution—but still, how badly it needs a filthy, filthy heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Steve O'Connell and Saren Nofs-Snyder

all photos courtesy of Brandon Dahlquist

 

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