Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of A Passion for Justice: An Encounter with Clarence Darrow
Brassy, curvaceous singing actress Emily Skinner is perfect casting for Mae in her prime, but she's almost scary when she transforms herself into the star late in life, still believing in her personal charisma against all odds. Skinner is equally at home as Jo, an aspiring actress who admires Mae for being so comfortable with her own physicality.
When Jo meets shy film historian Charlie (Hugh Nees) at Mae's grave in Brooklyn, they become friends through their shared love. Nees is appealing in several roles, and J. Fred Shiffman provides invaluable assistance as several men in Mae's life, ranging from scrappy vaudevillians and flouncing drag performers to retired boxers.
The fascination of Shear's play is that it shows how Mae West developed the persona that became immediately recognizable throughout her life and beyond. It follows young Mae through her vaudeville career, concentrating on the taboos she broke: she brought African-American dance styles and the presentational aspects of drag queens into the mainstream and in return faced arrest on obscenity charges and later, in Hollywood, censorship by the Hays Officebut audiences loved her.
Daniel Conway's scenic design and Dan Covey's lighting design in the small ARK Theatre employ scrims, projections and shabby false prosceniums to evoke more than one era with minimal clutter or time taken up with scene changes. In contrast, Helen Huang has designed sumptuous, gorgeous gowns that live up to the legend of Mae West.