Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Act a Lady at Portland Center Stage

Also see David's review of Buddy

Ebbe Roe Smith
Portland, Oregon is not on this Seattle scribe's usual beat, but as I had a dear friend in final performances of Shaw's Misalliance produced by Portland Center Stage, and was a fan of the company's excellent production of Bat Boy a few seasons back, I knew the trip would be worthwhile. Misalliance and my friend's performance in it were exquisite. So was the company's handsomely designed and quite remarkable new home, the Gerding Theatre at the Armory, which took the existing Portland Armory Annex (built in 1891) and refashioned it quite brilliantly into a still charming, yet technologically state of the art house with both a handsome main stage, as well as a jewel of a black box studio.

Since the studio space was housing Seattle native playwright Jordan Baker's intriguing new play Act a Lady, I decided to spend my Sunday afternoon seeing it, and was a worthwhile decision. Baker tells the comic, yet somewhat melancholy tale of what happens in a small, depression era, Midwestern town, when a trio of townsmen from the Elks lodge take on performing women's roles in an overheated melodrama that even A Little Night Music's Desiree would have considered shoddy. Little by little, through rehearsals, the women's roles and costumes have a distinctly gender-bending effect on the fellows, though to outward appearances only the youngest, most delicate of the men, Casper, seems to be in touch with his feminine side. Reality and theatricality blur, not just for the men but for the women involved, including butch lady director Zina, spirited costumer Lorna, and the bible thumping Dorothy, whose husband Miles takes on the grande dame role.

Baker's script has about an equal number of magical and confusing moments and seems in need of perhaps one more draft to clarify some of its twists and tangents, but, especially as stylishly staged by director Cliff Fannin Baker, it is never dull. Ebbe Roe Smith as Miles, who becomes the imposingly bizarre Lady Romola Von Plofsdorf, gets to make the most complete and comic transformation of the men, and does so splendidly, never succumbing to anything too campy. James Farmer as the decidedly masculine True takes the sketchiest of the three men's roles, and shows us his character's journey with honesty and sincerity. As Casper, Casey McFeron never really embodies the gentle soul who is grappling with his own sexual identity issues, and issues of being "different" in a small town of that era. Debora Ann Lund shows panache and a wicked sense of humor as Zina, and Torrey Cornwell is most appealing as Lorna. Sharonlee McLean as Dorothy takes Baker's best delineated character and masterfully hits every note of the woman's journey from small town prudishness to earnest acceptance.

Scenic designer Jeff Seats uses the limited stage space adroitly, and Don Crossley's lighting design helps create the real and surreal aspects of the play adroitly. Costume designed Jeff Coats has done predictably fine work with the "fancy dress" costumes in the play within the play, but does just as well with the small town every day wear for the cast.

Act A Lady runs through March 11, 2007 at Portland Center Stage, 128 11th, Portland, OR. For more information visit PCS on-line at

Photo by Joni Shimabukuro 

- David-Edward Hughes

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