Posted by: strugglesome | November 13, 2011

Let’s Hear It For The Boy: Azuka Theater presents Act A Lady

Personally, I have never liked the phrase “boys will be boys”. It excuses all manner of bad behavior while excluding women from having fun. It’s like saying “people will be people” and what does that mean, really? The idea that our actions are solely determined by our gender, and that gender isn’t learned but innate, are two that most modern theorists would refute in an instant, though of course most Tea Party leaders might agree wholeheartedly.

And the boys of Jordan Harrison’s Act A Lady, now being presented by Azuka Theatre, are anything but heteronormative. First of all, they defy gender stereotypes from the very top of the show in their desperate desire to put on a play, and worse, a play with cross dressing involved. Denizens of a tiny town in Nowwheresville, Bible Belt, 1927, Miles (Mike Bees), True (Matt Tallman) and Casper (Jamison Foreman) are united by their desire to be “fancymen” in ribbons and bows. Well, we all knew the Midwest was starved for entertainment. And while Miles’ staunchly Christian wife Dorothy (Leah Walton) is loath to be involved this “clove foot casserole”, she agrees to let her husband dress up and act out, with the smug self-assurance that Miles will eventually come to his senses and recant his theatrical loving ways. Little does Dot know that Miles et al have fallen under the spell of the radical new director in town, Zina (Amanda Schoonover) whose name and nature echo that of a certain warrior princess, and she is going to make this production a success if it kills her. And with the help of her plucky make-up artist Lorna (Megan Slater) she just might pull it off. Of course, it’s going to take some gender confusion and some corsets, but that’s pretty par for the course for the theater, right?

Staged in the brand new and wonderful space at First Baptist Church, this production moves along like one of sound designer Daniel Perelstein’s carefully chosen Jazz Age tunes, catchy and neat, with a wink and a smile. Meghan Jones’ efficient and versatile set design shifts from 18th Century French Drawing room to backstage at a Midwestern Theater with the help of well used curtains and lovingly painted backdrops. Joshua Schulman’s effective lighting design makes multiple locations out of one stage, and draws shadows on the red background in the best traditions of vaudeville. And Alisa Sickora Kleckner’s costumes are beautifully designed, if a touch anachronistic (40’s style trousers in the 20s? How very progressive).

Harrison’s text is both verbally clever and structurally flawed. With whip-smart dialogue and breathless humor his characters are sharply drawn and sweetly sympathetic. Of course, they also have the benefit of a truly excellent cast and clean smart direction by Kevin Glaccum, who keeps the piece moving along at a rhythm that glides over the issues and features the intelligence. Mike Dees’ impossibly tall Miles is fantastic, funny, floppy, fabulous in calico and silk. And he has met his match in Leah Walton’s perfectly timed and hard-as-nails Dorothy, who, beneath all the bluster about Jesus, is the most profound of them all, stating with clarity “That is art. When you think you know how to see something but in the end you see something else”. With her pantaloons and menswear vest, Schoonover’s deliciously snappy and dramatic Zina strides around the stage like the 20’s film director from Singing In The Rain, holding onto her sanity through sheer willpower and a flask of gin. She mentors Foreman’s endearing young Casper through his sexual crisis (he’s a friend of Dorothy’s long before The Wizard Of Oz had even been released) and inspires Tallman’s gruff yet charming True, though of course that may have more to do with Slater’s charming but rather flat Lorna. Shifting neatly between roles and genders and enacting the ludicrous and loony play-within-a-play (a Moliere parody filled with ghosts, girls and ghastly revelations) with humor and skill. It’s just a shame that the play itself falls apart a bit in the middle, and it’s efforts to resurrect itself in the final moments of the piece are touching but not quite as redemptive as we might hope.

Harrison’s intentions with this piece are very clear, and so are the ways in which they fail. The play explores the idea of gender as learned, as social construct rather than innate understanding. With exchanges like:

Can a lady act a lady?

It’s something you learn, like everything else.

As the play progresses, the playwright tries to make a gradual shift within the piece, having the male actors unable to separate themselves from their female counterparts, and putting the women in trousers and calling them men. As the men delve deeper and deeper into their onstage personas, they project a separate masculine self, embodied by the female actors. But the end result is confusing rather than mind-bending, and it slows the natural flow of the story by entrenching us in the melodrama of the French farce and depriving us of information about the characters who really matter to us, those in the “present day” of a 20’s era town. We recognize that theater is being used as the lens through which we can view sexuality and society, that beauty is being questioned and examined by the layers of artifice encoded into drama, all of that is more than clear. But it’s not executed well enough within the text to be as meaningful as it wants to be, and no matter what this excellent production does, it can’t fix the story itself.

But ignoring all the issues, this is a tart and clever ode to the power of theater to improve our lives and take us places we’ve never been before, be it another country or the body of another person. And couldn’t we all use to be transported every once in a while, shown a different perspective, see the world through someone else’s eyes? And if those eyes are wearing a thick coat of mascara, well, so much the better, right? Man, woman or child, we can all use to feel pretty every once in a while.

Azuka Theatre’s production of Act A Lady is playing through the 20th of November. Tickets are available here.

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