“What’s art about a man in a dress?” is Dorothy’s question at the start of Act a Lady, the latest production from the Hub Theatre. Thanks to the clever writing of Jordan Harrison and the high quality of Hub Theatre’s production, there’s ample art and abundant laughs in this gender-twisting comedy.
The men of the Elks Club in a small Midwestern town in the Prohibition-era 1920’s take pride in their annual theatre pageant to raise money for children, a “righteous good cause.” Each year they bring in a hot shot, out of town director to lead their efforts. This year’s visiting director brings a tale of romance and intrigue from 18th century France in which all of the roles are to be played by men!
Miles (Matthew Pauli) has a hard time winning the support of his wife Dorothy (Toni Rae Salmi) for this cause. She initially regards the idea of men in drag as a “cloven-foot casserole,” but Miles eventually brings her around, even persuading her to participate by providing underscoring for the play with her trusty accordion.
Rehearsals begin under the driven leadership of Zina (a terrific Nora Achrati), a European pants-wearing, riding crop waving director who declares that “Ve vill not fail!” Soon she is helping the men learn how to swish and glide, telling them that the secret to acting a lady is “always act less, as if your very existence fatigues you.”
Other members of the cast include the tall and manly True (David Zimmerman) and the softer Casper (Cyle Durkee), an effeminate young man who has a hard time realizing what is “supposed to stay on stage.” An essential part of the production is the cheerily optimistic Lorna (Jenna Sokolowski), a makeup artist with real Hollywood experience working with the likes of Mary Pickford and Clara Bow.
It takes a while for the men to start loosening up and accessing their feminine side. As Lorna states to one character, “So, you’re scared there’s a lady in there waitin’ to get out?” (Other than Zina, all of the characters speak in the heaviest and funniest Midwestern accents since the movie Fargo.)
Act a Lady is an entertaining comedy that works on many levels. Jordan Harrison has achieved the rare trifecta of writing a play that is funny, that has humor arising naturally from the characters, and that uses that humor to consistently support the themes of the play. The result is a rich payoff for the audience.
These themes include discovery of self and the world, male and female power, and most of all, the transformative nature of theatre. The freedom given to them through assuming female roles allows the men to start questioning themselves about their lives and their needs. The playwright suggests these themes in so light a manner, the audience can draw its own conclusions, or just to sit back and laugh.
Act a Lady
Closes August 4, 2013
The Hub Theatre in the John Swayze Theatre
9431 Silver King Court
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $30
Fridays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Hub Theatre’s Artistic Director Helen Pafumi has once again found a small gem of a play (Act a Lady was first produced at the 2006 Humana Festival and is making its DC-area premiere). Matthew R. Wilson handles the broader comedy and the gentler moments with equally deft skill.
Special kudos should also be given to costume designer Maria Vetsch for another outstanding effort. All of her clothes are perfectly appropriate for the characters, from Dorothy’s simple dress that screams Midwestern housewife to the plus fours, argyle socks, and vest worn by the powerful woman director. As for the “play within a play,” the gowns are beautiful in a Marie Antoinette style and the towering wigs are costuming and comedic masterpieces.
Jordan Harrison’s Act a Lady takes the time-honored theatrical device of men in drag and uses it in a fresh and intelligent way. Hub Theatre’s production is a crowd-pleaser.
Act a Lady by Jordan Harrison . Directed by Matthew R. Wilson . Featuring Toni Rae Salmi, Nora Achrati, Jenna Sokolowski, Matthew Pauli, David Zimmerman and Cyle Durkee . Produced by The Hub Theatre . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.