Are humans genetically encoded to worship other humans? Is it somehow in our DNA to idolize and place others in the role of icon? Historically nearly every culture has had at least some sort of living deity or cherished nobility whose key job was to have lots of nice things and live in really big houses. In America, we like to think we’ve put an end to the whole royalty thing, having given King George the boot and all, but then there’s always that odd thing called celebrity. An alternative title for Claudia Shear’s Dirty Blonde, playing at Triad Stage, could very well be Celebrities and the People Who Worship Them. As it turns out, this is fairly descriptive of our cast of characters for this charming, funny, but never very daring adaptation of the life of Mae West. Fortunately, things do pick up in the second act, and like Mae herself, things turn from charming to weird, eccentric, and just a little bit kinky.
A pitfall of Claudia Shear’s very funny three-person play is that it is written for the initiated, and if you’re not at least a little familiar with the work of Mae West, you may miss the point. It’s a love letter to Mae, but it helps to be in love with her already. Nevertheless, Shear’s play manages to tell intertwining tales that leave us with an impression of the life and lasting effects of a true Hollywood legend. Mae West was an early stage and screen icon that moved from Vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood with an iron will to succeed that can only be described as a force of nature. As the title implies, she’s just a little bit phony, too: West was born with dirty blonde hair, but dyed it platinum blonde to appease the masses. The play reveals she did push boundaries and made a career out of clashing with censors. Her first success in New York was a play called Sex, a play that, while successful, had her arrested and fined. Controversy followed her, or she followed it, hard to tell.
Shear’s play is cleverly divided among three actors, each taking on a variety of roles. The cast changes characters with subtle changes in voice and posture. The play itself is splintered between two main narratives. We follow the life of Mae herself, and also see two of her most devoted fans (Jo and Charlie) in the present. Catherine LeFrere plays three roles here: young Mae, old Mae, and Jo, a woman who looks an awful lot like Mae. Jo, as it turns out, is simply gaga for Mae West. She’s a big fan. But then she meets an even bigger fan when she bumps into Charlie (Ryan G. Dunkin) at Mae West’s grave site. They strike up an unlikely friendship that mostly involves watching old Mae West movies and eventually a little dress up. Scott Ahearn rounds out the cast by playing the many men Mae used and abused for her career: her early partner and husband, a producer and collaborator, and eventually a bodyguard who assists and loves her. As this is a play all about façade, the characterizations can often feel like an SNL parody. It’s when the characters begin acting like real humans that the magic happens, as often happens in the scenes between Jo and Charlie, the true heart of the play.
Jiyoun Chang’s set is regal and stunning, but feels disparate, and at times empty. Trunks move seamlessly back and forth, creating furniture and containing the varied costume pieces used throughout. Dozens of hanging lights fall from the ceiling, and we also see a chandelier and other lights fly in from time to time. The effects are handsome, but feel a little bit needless.
Mae West was an early pioneer into the wilderness of American celebrity, the first of a breed now well established. And with Oscar season just around the corner we’re reminded of the odd dance we play with the less than 1% who populate the weird world of Hollywood fame. During this time of year, with all the tweets about who’s wearing what and who’s dating whom, we’re easily reminded that fan is short for fanatic. Dirty Blonde seems to want to add something to the discussion on celebrity in America, but appears instead all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Dirty Blonde continues through Sunday, February 15. For more details, please view the sidebar.