BWW Review: A CONVERSATION WITH EDITH HEAD at Pear Theatre is an intimate evening of Hollywood backstory with the acclaimed costume designer
Betsy Kruse Craig, the new artistic director of Pear Theatre, has scored a significant success with their production A Conversation with Edith Head, Susan Claassen and Paddy Calistro's historically accurate and fascinating look at Hollywood's greatest costume designer. Using Head's words culled from Calistro's posthumous autobiography, Edith Head's Hollywood, this show is a delight for film and fashion buffs, and Claassen's spot-on performance creates an intimate portrait of Head.
Claassen, who bears a striking resemblance to her subject, was inspired to co-write the show after viewing a television biography on Ms. Head. Sharing a love for fashion, Claassen teamed up with Paddy Calistro, one of the leading authorities on Head's life and work, to create this loving tribute that has seen international acclaim since its premiere in Tucson, Arizona. The show is incredibly well documented, including marvelous "Edith-isms" and clever interactions with the audience. Right at the onset, she came up to my friend and gently mocked his choice of blue jeans to attend her show.
The audience was full of Head aficionados, who would help answer trivia questions posed by Ms. Head. The format of the show is a faux interview in 1981 with a 'host" (Mike Saenz) prompting Ms. Head with questions about her illustrious career. She's on the set of her last picture Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, but more than eager to regale us with details about her decades of work that resulted in over 1,100 films, 35 Academy Award nominations and an unprecedented eight Oscars. Even those unfamiliar with the costume designers have seen Ms. Head's remarkable designs for a range of stars from Clara Bow and Bette Davis to Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford.
The set is peppered with Hollywood photos, Academy Awards and two of Head's most famous dresses, the sensational brown satin gown for Bette Davis in All About Eve and Elizabeth Taylor's white tulle gown from A Place in the Sun. Claassen is dressed in a smart grey suit, her signature dark eyeglasses and the straight banged hairstyle with a pencil stuck in her bun. Her uncanny resemblance is just the icing on the cake of a brilliant tour de force performance that brings Head to life before our eyes. Edith takes us back to her beginning at Paramount, faking a portfolio to snare a job as a design assistant. In the male-dominated design world, Head cannily befriended many actresses and related the special relationships she had with Taylor, Mae West, and Barbara Stanwyck. Head understood the female figure and quickly became a star in her own right.
The show touches on delicious Hollywood backstories, her disappointment at Oscar failures, and her poignant attempt to validate her life's work. There are questions taken from the audience, and Ms. Head always has a quick retort. Commenting on audience members fashion was wickedly funny, a sly take on her hit role on Art Linkletter's TV show House Party, where she would dispense brutally frank assessments of audience fashion decades before the word 'makeover' existed. Looking back at my blue-jeaned friend, she commented, "There isn't ANYONE I can't makeover." What comes through is a smart, well-crafted portrait of a woman, totally dedicated to her craft, who left an indelible mark on fashion for over six decades. A master of self-promotion, the show ends with her triumphantly clutching an Oscar, the reward from her peers for her excellence, perseverance, and skill.
A Conversation with Edith Head runs through December 16th, 2018
Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida Street, Mountain View
Tickets: thepear.org or (650) 254-1148
Photos: Tim Fuller