BWW Review: SEX is Alive and Well at SHAW FESTIVAL
How does an author title a play? Well, there should be something descriptive, enticing or informative to engage the audience from the outset.The Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake has gone out of a limb and programmed a virtually unknown play that is rarely, if ever produced. Oh, and the title is simply SEX. And it's author is no other than the infamous Mae West! But did West really write plays? She most certainly did and did so for her own star turns. Written in 1926, unable to advertise using the title, and later raided after running for a year, SEX was almost forgotten. Happily, this highly polished and entertaining production now running through October turns out to be the sleeper of the season.
It should come as no surprise to learn that SEX deals with the sordid lives of a call girl, back room dealings, drugs and copious amounts of alcohol. Stage director Peter Hinton, who worked wonders with the Shaw's CABARET a few seasons ago, has placed his stamp on Ms. West's play. Hinton pushes the boundaries and blurs the lines with his gender bending casting, which at first may trick the viewer, but then leaves room for transgender implications. Who is attracted to whom and what their true sexual identity is irrelevant in telling the story.
West wrote the juicy role of Margy LaMont for herself, full of sass and bravado. Diana Donnelly steps into the role placing her own stamp without much imitation of the famed creator. Of course the language used exudes Mae West-ism's, so it is clear who this character truly is. While the language may seem corny to 21st century ears, the subject matter would have been shocking to hear onstage in 1926. The play was closed and West was convicted of "corrupting the morals of youth." According to the program, she served 8 days of her 10 days sentence in jail ( two days off for good behavior).
It is clear from the outset that West is no wordsmith, but she has created an engaging story. We meet LaMont in Montreal's red light district, fed up with her live-in pimp Rocky Waldron. They both are in trouble with the law, who knows their hijinks well. But LaMont wants out, is tired of the business and follows a known client, Lieutenant Gregg, to Trinidad. Rocky has seduced yet another rich woman, Clara Stanton, after drugging her and stealing her jewels. LaMont intercedes on Clara's behalf, but the plot gets sticky and the tables eventually turn.
Ms Donnelly is brash, but often understated in her performance. She develops a character that has depth, coming from years of heartache and rough living. By the time she hits Trinidad, she becomes more glamorous and determined. When she sings it is a voice reminiscent of Ms. West-- that is to say, seductive but unimpressive. Kristopher Bowman is Rocky, the kingpin who claims to own LaMont, but would sell his sister for more cocaine. Bowman exudes sliminess wrapped in a handsome package. Andre Sills is the burly Gregg, ready to steal LaMont away and keep her as his own for life. Mr. Sills brings a humanity to the play that isn't formed from a cookie cutter mold. He is earnest in his desires for LaMont.
Fiona Byrne turns in a classy performance as the socialite Clara, who briefly runs away from upper class society for a fling. Her downward spiral after being plied with alcohol and drugs is utterly believable. But West creates a brilliant surprise when the tables turn in ACT IV, and LaMont is hurled into Clara's world.
The secondary characters are fascinating and helped along with Hinton's expert guidance. Allegra Fulton plays multiple roles, but her night club singer Condez is enthralling and kitschy at the same time. Hinton has included musical numbers and interludes throughout that set the mood, but they are best realized during the cafe scene in Trinidad. When the entire cast dances amidst a flurry of balloons, you are instantly transported to 20's where liquor, drugs, and music made for a carefree bacchanal.
Jonathan Tan is heartbreaking as LaMont's neighbor Agnes. Her relationship is miserable and she too wants to escape her dreary life. Tan dressed as a woman really is immaterial, as he brings a pathos to the role that is heart wrenching. Julia Course also switches gender to play Jimmy Stanton, the new found object of LaMont's love. When paired with Ric Reid as Jimmy's father, the two are truly upper crust and offer a stark contrast to the dark life that LaMont is leading.
Designer Eo Sharp has created picture perfect costume designs that ooze elegance when needed, workaday clothes and some outlandishly perfect costumes for the Trinidad scenes. His simple use of a myriad of suitcases remarkably delineates playing areas, while sometimes opening to become prop pieces. He frames the four corners of the set with stanchions that are carved with height numbers, reminding us that any of these characters could be arrested and booked with a mug shot. Bonnie Beecher's lighting is evocative and employs multiple types of lights, creating captivating effects. The lights that shine above the rotating fans in ACT III suggest a scene right out of the film CASABLANCA.
Again, Hinton has treated the play with a crafty mind and attention to detail, recreating a world that many of us just know from black and white gangster movies. Mae provides the stock characters, but Hinton somehow lifts them off the page to make them more human, and in most cases utterly believable. The title itself proves to be a spring board of ideas for the director--is West talking about the act of sex, the archetypal two genders of sex, or an amalgam of hetero and homo sexual identities. It appears that the answer is yes to all of the above.
I believe that Mae West would be thrilled with this production. At a time when sexuality is more spoken of and gender identities are being openly explored, this production of SEX continues to push boundaries that West may never have dreamed of. Oh, and as for the title...when approaching the theatre complex at the Shaw Festival, the greeter happily guided the audience by saying, "If you are seeing BRIGADOON, enter here. Or if you are seeing "the other play," enter over there!" Yes, sex is still taboo for many.
SEX by Mae West plays at the Jackie Maxwell Theatre of the Shaw Festival through October 13, 2019. Contact shawfest.com for more information.