It's easy to mistake Dirty Blonde as just a play about Mae West and the people who love her. It is about those things, but it's also about transformation, creativity and identity--themes that seem to be twitching the cultural dowsing rods more than ever today. Cloaking oneself in the skin of another seemingly superior species is nothing new, but the celebration of it, the acceptance of it and the encouragement of it have become public spectacle. Television (MTV's Becoming, in which fans suit up as their favorite singers to recreate videos), movies (Rock Star) and theater (Hedwig's search for the origin of love in celebrity) all point to a serious hole in a collective sense of self-worth.
Claudia Shear's play (which demands that its three actors switch roles frequently, often in midscene) follows the rise and shine of movie star Mae and the blooming relationship between two of her fans. This West makes us long for an idol who's a true creative force, someone who writes her own lines and relies on her wit rather than some hit factory plugging in beats. Ironically, it's this level of independence and personality that draws her two fans into finally imitating her, literally, in order to empower their own lives.
I'm somewhat corrupted in judging Portland Center Stage's version: I saw Dirty Blonde in New York with Shear herself playing the female roles. No doubt this was the Platonic ideal of the play. It would be unfair to hold this production up against one that had years to work out the kinks. Still, there are a few cues PCS's spirited, if not fully successful, version could take from the original.
The main cue, taken from the play itself, is to slow down. A scene where a director is coaching Mae as she practices a bit from her first self-penned play has the director putting the brakes on her delivery until it becomes her trademark coo. Even though this play relies on a certain buoyancy to switch back and forth between present and past, some scenes get lost in the delivery, particularly the scenes in which the two fans are getting to know each other. Additionally, a three-person cast really has to feed off of scene changes. In the New York version, I was particularly impressed with the staging--the way a scene that took place in a disco tumbled into a scene in a cab almost in sync with the strobe lights and bass beats. Often the scene switches in the Portland version feel awkward and stumbling.
Colin Thomson as the schlubby West fan Charlie ought to win an award for best use of real back hair as a prop. Jennifer Taub, who plays both West and acolyte Jo, seems to have a harder time switching from one character to another; it might work better if the Jo character's voice and phrasing were less Westian, thus keeping the characters separate. Roy Abramsohn is solid filling in as assorted secondary characters.
Any play plugged with the wit and wisdom of Mae West is going to be entertaining, and Dirty Blonde is worth a look. Come up and see it sometime.
Portland Center Stage at the Newmark Theatre, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 SW Broadway, 274-6588. 7 pm Tuesdays- Wednesdays, noon and 8 pm Thursdays, 8 pm Fridays- Saturdays, 2 and 7 pm Sundays. Closes April 14. $12-$44.
"It's better to be looked over than overlooked."