Though her name is no longer on the lips of an adoring public, during the height of silent film and then early talkies, Clara Bow was The It Girl, the very personification of the carefree flapper of the Roaring Twenties.
How she got there- and why – is the focus of playwright Alia Faith Williams’ new play, Clara Bow, Becoming ‘It’. Though audiences may not be familiar with the finer details of Bow’s background, it’s a familiar one: impoverished girl with no training and no education claws her way to the top of silent movies, only to end as a recluse in later years. It is, in short, the real-life tale of Sunset Boulevard.
Bow herself made no apologies for her beginnings. The daughter of a dreaming and scheming father and a complete nutjob of a mother (who later was institutionalized, remaining there until her death), she remade herself from awkward 16 year old into ingenue, then bit player, then star. It’s a true Cinderella story that begins with a 1921 photo contest and screen tests and ends years later in a shabby apartment in California.
Much of Williams’ script is unfortunately derivative of other, well known plays and movies, all touching on the theme of ‘what price fame?’. Indeed, there’s even a scene with Bow spurning a microphone, the very mirror of Sunset Boulevard’s famous microphone scene. And Bow (Rebecca Ellis) as directed by Heather Whitpan, is depicted here as a waif, always unsure of herself, always needy. That may have been the case, but it’s far too easy a way out: I suspect the real Clara Bow was far more complex than the simple Poor Little Rich Girl we are presented with.
Clara Bow: Becoming ‘It’
closes July 22, 2017
Details and tickets
That’s not to say this isn’t a good show, it is. It’s just a new play in need of some reworking. Which, after all, is what the Fringe is here to embrace. And a full house on opening afternoon portends sold-out shows in future.
The good news is that those expecting the all-too-familiar solo show will be pleasantly surprised with a full cast more than capable of playing multiple roles. Standouts are Nick Depinto as Gary Cooper/Rex Bell and Rebecca Ellis as Bow. Not only does Ellis look the part, she’s well able to make up for some of the script’s shortcomings. Costumes, set and props (Lorraine Imwold) are fairly good, given what must needs have been a tight budget; in particular, some of the women’s clothing was spot on period. And the simple roll-on pieces of a chaise longue and bar invoked the times.
Projections and short snippets of movies behind the actors (projections designer by the playwright) were meant to give a taste of Bow’s talents, but it seems an odd choice to have a live actor vie for attention with a movie. I honestly could not decide if it was distracting or instructive; for one thing was clear once you saw the real Clara Bow on the screen: she really did have that something.
As to what is the price of fame: in the Director’s Note in the program, Heather Whitpan writes “Is becoming ‘It’ worth it?”. ‘It’ may have started out as studio hype, but it wasn’t a hoax. Nearly a hundred years after she entered that contest and won that initial screen test, you can now take a look for yourself at Clara Bow on YouTube.
Yes, it was worth it.
Clara Bow: Becoming ‘It’ . Playwright/Projections Design: Alia Faith Williams . Director: Heather Whitpan . Cast: Rebecca Ellis as Clara Bow; Nick DePinto as Gary Cooper/Rex Bell; Seth Alcorn as Robert Bow/B.P. Schulberg; Maggie Robertson as Tui Lorraine/Daisy Devoe; Charlene V Smith as Sarah Bow/Elinor Glyn; Nora Spillaine, Andrew Quilpa and Brett Steven Abelman as Ensemble . Lighting Designer: Peter Caress . Costumes, Set & Props Designer: Lorraine Imwold . Stage Manager/Set Designer: Laura Schlachtmeyer . Produced by LiveArtDC.