BWW Review: DIRTY BLONDE at Coyote Stageworks

BWW Review: DIRTY BLONDE at Coyote Stageworks

Coyote Stageworks is an unusual and wonderful inclusion in the desert's theatre scene; unusual because it only produces two shows per year, but wonderful because both of those shows continually turn out to be excellent. Their current production, Dirty Blonde, adds another jewel to their crown.

The play tells the story of a man (Steve Gunderson) and a woman (Bets Malone), both obsessed fans of Mae West, who meet at her grave site. They strike up a friendship, largely focused on their common idol, but that is only one thread of the plot. The script, written by Claudia Shear (the original woman in the play) and James Lapine (original director) is as notable for its structure as it is for its content. Our man and woman sometimes speak to each other, but often speak in monologues directly to the audience. When they do, they are isolated in individual light pools, and frequently the one not speaking actually leaves the stage, usually to make a costume/character change.

These exits allow Ms. Malone to alternate between the rather schleppy office assistant we first meet, and Mae West herself, at several different points in her career. Gunderson, in turn, plays eight characters, sometimes with slight costume accessory changes. A third actor, Coyote stalwart Larry Raben, moves the plot along by playing another five or six characters.

Sound confusing? It absolutely is not, thanks to the uniform excellence of the cast, and some very tight design and operation of the stage lighting. In our first transformation, the man becomes a 17-year-old fan of Mae's, hanging out in the lobby of her apartment. A gangster boyfriend of Mae's (Raben) invites him up to meet her, and we see her go to work charming (and perhaps seducing) the young man. Moments later, Gunderson is a Vaudeville piano player accompanying Mae (Malone) on her act very early in her career. Malone skillfully shows that the character we know was only in its formative stages at that point - that character is not something that the lady was born with! In that scene, she uses one of her movie quips: "I made myself platinum. I was born a dirty blonde," and that's the source of the play's title.

The performance has class from start to finish. There is a synergy created when three strong performers, each individually excellent, combine with some great material, and a director who might well have wielded a whip to get the speed he achieved. That synergy brings a level of excellence that is rare in the Coachella Valley. The show runs as fast and smooth as a streamlined train.

The structure of this script is much more interesting than just a "womb to tomb" telling of Mae's life. There are even some developments between the original male and female fans, but learning more details about those developments will cost you the price of a ticket.

Dirty Blonde plays through Sunday, February 11, at the Annenberg Theatre in the Palm Springs Art Museum. More information is available at www.coyotestageworks.org or by calling 760-325-4490.

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From This Author Stan Jenson

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