'Act a Lady,' potentially sublime, gets ridiculous

Posted: November 11, 2011

Azuka Theatre inaugurates its handsome new performance space with Jordan Harrison's Act a Lady. The First Baptist Church at 17th and Sansom Streets is the new home of the Off-Broad consortium, and it's a welcome addition to the crowded venue scene in Philadelphia.

Act a Lady was developed during the first of PlayPenn's new-play conferences in 2005 and went on to success at the Humana Festival in Louisville the following year. It has since swept the regional theaters of the country, with production after production. Azuka's boasts excellent sets (designed by Meghan Jones) and not-funny-enough costumes (designed by Alisa Sickora Kleckner). Director Kevin Glaccum uses the stage space and the big red curtain cleverly to hide and reveal.

It's the kind of play dear to the hearts of small theater companies: It starts from the well-worn premise of a hick town that says, "I know, kids, let's put on a show." There is the tough, pants-wearing city-slicker female director (the excellent Amanda Schoonover) and a Hollywood makeup artist (Megan Slater) on a mission.

There are three local guys (Mike Dees, Matt Tallman, Jamison Foreman), overalled and work-booted, who are asked to wear women's clothes and "act a lady." There is an accordion-playing, God-fearing wife (Leah Walton). She will feel the transformative power of drama while the men will feel the transformative power of costumes and discover their inner ladies.

Harrison's script seems to want to be an investigation of the tricky borders of sexual identity while investigating the way theater can override prejudices, win over hearts and minds, and reveal truths otherwise hidden in real life.

All this has been said and done a million times before. What can raise such a show above the hackneyed is the play-within-the-play, providing a clever reflection of or commentary on the frame play. But here the silly plot about a countess and an emerald and a lover named Valentino is nearly impossible to follow and merely provides an excuse for fancy gowns and wigs. There are potentially intriguing scenes where the line between reality and theater blur, although those, too, seem merely an excuse for costume changes as the women in the cast become, temporarily, the male characters.

Act a Lady could have been an interesting inquiry into homosexuality ("you're scared there's a lady in there tryin' to get out") and/or a feminist protest ("There's no trick to playing a lady - just less. As if your very existence fatigues you."). Although Harrison flirts with these ideas, he seems unable or unwilling to pursue them and reverts to easy drag farce. The whole business winds up in a corny, sentimental testimonial to the Power of Art.

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