Edith Head Comes to Vibrant Theatrical Life @ the El Portal

A Conversation with Edith Head
by Paddy Calistro & Susan Claassen
directed by Dianne J. Winslow
El Portal Secondstage
through October 24

Edith Head describes the incredible Miss Bette Davis as a whirlwind. Well, as portrayed by the incredible Suan Claassen, Miss Edith Head must have been a volcano, or at the very least a small raging dust storm. When she enters her office with portfolio neatly tucked under her arm, it is a brisk distinguished stride that marks forever the great businesswoman/designer that was Edith Head. Now at the El Portal in NoHo, A Conversation with Edith Head is an authentically documented and loving tribute to the singular woman by a great actress in a detailed, tour-de-force performance.

With eight unprecedented Oscars, Head was a champion in a man's world and respected by both the clients she served and the big boys themselves. Clients included Clara Bow, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Davis, Grace Kelly, ElizaBeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, to name a few, and monumental directors including DeMille, Wyler and Hitchcock and studio execs like Lew Wasserman who set her up like a queen on the Universal lot, when she made her transition from Paramount.

Claassen looks remarkably like Head, and focusing on the characteristic bangs and bun on top of her head with pencil in place and dark-rimmed glasses, one could swear they were in the presence of the lady herself. Her posturing and hoity toity voice are executed undeniably well, making the total performance genuine and bizarrely alluring. Always aware of her unattractive size and smile, she considered herself an artiste of camouflage when it came to dressing others.

Stuart Moulton serves as moderator opening the 90 minute piece. Audience members are requested to write out questions before the show which Claassen addresses from the top in perfect Head matter-of-fact style. Answering the questions. she works in the framework of Head's life and career (beginning as a sketch artist in 1923 - 1981) and the amusing, sometimes saucy anecdotes about the various celebrities. Head loved most of the actresses, but, without Claassen going into detail, disliked Claudette Colbert. Claassen also has some fun comments about Stanwyck's low butt and Audrey Hepburn's long odd neck, which of course proved obstacles to easy fashion design. Intermittently, she asks audience members to stand up and cautiously appraises their apparel and sense of fashion. She called one poor man from Orange County a farmer because of his casual attire. Because of Claassen's quick wit, spontaniety and great ease in telling a story, the evening moves swiftly and never lapses into boredom. As the play takes place in 1981, when Head was working on Carl Reiner's film Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, she was declining healthwise. To Claassen's acting credit, she shows the tormented side of Head, lapsing into moments of forgetfulness and ambitiously taking credit for designs she did not create. It is here that Moulton gets her back on track, caringly redirecting her distractions to serve the audience present with correct statistics.

The set design is credited to Miss Claassen and James Blair, and the beautiful gowns - Davis' Margo Channing's 'bumpy night dress' from All About Eve and Taylor's scrumptious white gown from A Place in the Sun -deliciously adorn opposite ends of the office set. On the walls there are a great number of autographed photos of the actresses Head attended and on small tables miniature manikins sporting different costume designs.

Calistro's wonderful script is based on the autobiography she co-authored with Head herself Edith Head's Hollywood, so what you get is the truth and nothing but the truth. Most actors and artists can relate to Head's insecurity about her profession: what it meant to be in the shadows behind those she served, making them look good.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable, rich and enlightening evening of theatre not to be missed.

(Photo credit: Tim Fuller)


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