Act a Lady
Written by Jordan Harrison
Produced by Iron Crow Theatre at the Theatre Project, through June 8
The opening scene of playwright Jordan Harrison's Act a Lady, currently in production by Iron Crow Theatre Company, immediately sends up a red flag that something strange is afoot in this Prohibition-set farce. Miles (Iron Crow artistic director Steven Satta-Fleming) runs the town's amateur theater company and he tells his wife, Dorothy (Gina Braden), that for this year's fundraiser he, True (Steve Sawicki), and Casper (Alec Weinberg) are going to perform in fancy dress. No, not formal attire; more like dresses and the like. You know, women's clothing, for the female roles the three men are to play. Dot, as Miles calls her, is a God-fearing woman and is skeptical of the ridiculous idea. The entire cast has affected a nasal, almost cornpone Midwestern accent, and they deliver their snappy lines with military precision. It's like the RZA put together a percussion track using dialogue clips from Fargo.
After a brief monologue from Dorothy about the dangers of slipping into sin, in the very next scene Satta-Fleming and Sawicki return, this time dressed as women in the play within the play. Well, they're wearing dresses, rather posh ones at that, but they look more like two factory workers who accidentally got ready for work in their wives' closets. Act a lady? These dudes look more like they just robbed a women's fitting room.
Don't overthink what's going on with Act a Lady just yet, as Harrison's script has barely begun its nimbly structured comic hijinks. Soon, in one of the play's near-endless supply of ribald lines, one of the ladies-well, men poorly dressed as ladies-says a lie is "like skinny-dipping in a lake of fire." (The entire play is more quotable than an all-nighter with Noel Coward and a case of champagne.) Still to come: the seriously serious female director Zina (Julie Herber) to handle the production, which is an 18th-century French melodrama, with Hollywood makeup artist Lorna (Caitlyn Joy) in tow. Soon, the confusion starts to build, as, for instance, Miles shows up as Miles asking accordion-playing Dot to help out with the production, then Miles shows up in costume working with True and Zina to bring the characters of Lady Romola (Satta-Fleming) and Countess (Sawicki) to life, and then Lady Romola and the Countess trade mellifluous barbs as the domestic help, Greta (Weinberg), flutters in the background. And then everything gets really nutty when the characters in the play's play start to show up and interact with the actors in the play you're watching. Got that?
Don't worry, Harrison's lively, heady exploration of gender as a social performance is basically a classic screwball comedy. Madcap and anarchic but always under control, Act a Lady is a bit like something Charles Ludlam might've penned after reading Roland Barthes' S/Z and watching Preston Sturges movies. And under director Juanita Rockwell, Iron Crow's Lady is a finely honed actors' showcase.
Satta-Fleming and Sawicki shoulder the showiest roles with classy reserve. Both Miles and True are downhome Midwestern men, sharp contrasts to the upper-crust Lady Romola and Countess that have them overzealously swooning and quipping. All four characters are absurd exaggerations, and the actors have a ball finding subtle moments amid the ostentatious plumage. Sawicki, in particular, has a touch of John Cleese's physical humor in him. The look of petrified pride on his face every time he shows up as Countess is funny all by itself.
That moderation is what's most impressive here. When a script and story is so overstuffed with the outlandish, it takes a measure of self-control not to let everything balloon into empty parody. The cast does a skillful job of allowing the play to work on its own merits, particularly Herber. Her Zina is a pants-wearing, short-haired lady director with a vaguely European accent. It's a caricature, but Herber has the reserve to find the comedy in, say, Zina's instruction on how to behave like a lady-"act as if your very existence fatigues you"-without resorting to an ironic wink.
Such restraint keeps Lady's showboat characters in the realm of the larger-than-life instead of the utterly preposterous, giving the play's two genuine curveballs the room to breathe. The play-within-the-play's party pooper is Dorothy. The compromises Dorothy has made with herself during her life have hardened her into an anxiously coiled ball of nerves, ready to explode when any change threatens to take her out of the expected routine she's created to deal with what her life has become. Braden communicates that everyday tension in Dorothy's rigid posture, the way Dorothy purposely carries herself, the way Dorothy reasons with herself. Why is the play in which her husband plays a woman such a threat to her? Because it goes against God? Because it just isn't right? Because he's supposed to be the man and she's supposed to be the woman? Well, what exactly does that mean to her?
Harrison's most entertaining creation is Casper, who basically becomes the ingénue to the play-within-the-play, and Iron Crow's production belongs to Weinberg. He's the young man for whom performance isn't just a lark, it might show him who he really is. Weinberg plunges into every moment with a tempestuous eagerness, his face simultaneously registering confusion, anxiety, fear, and glee, like a puppy that just learned water is wet. Casper is a tad bewildered by the feelings he has for True-and why he can't figure out what to "do" with the girlie pinup True gives him. And while Casper doesn't entirely find the answers he's looking for by the play's end, he does find the courage familiar to any young person who grew up wondering where the roads that lead out of town go: That's it's time he finds out for himself.