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The Great White Wash

 

I was always a lunatic talker and storyteller, so it served me right when two lesbian women dragged me kicking and screaming with delight into the world of downtown New York theater, where the bathrooms had no toilet paper and the passions of the performer wrote the plays. We three formed a theater company called Split Britches, after the pants with crotch holes once worn by farming women to facilitate peeing while standing. The works we collaboratively created were always vaudevillian on some level, political on another and ultimately sexual, centering around the lesbian identities of my two colleagues.

     
My congenital defect is my straightness, and thus my role in this lesbian theater company has even been the subject of some discussion by scholars of feminist theater. Peg and Lo often ended up in a clinch, in a dance, a caress; what the hell was I doing there? My bizarre presence in that company, which was in some ways both the group’s linchpin and its demise, was, I think, about Audience, about how bearing witness can both release a scene’s sexiness as well as its shame; I let them be Watched. I made them a couple by not being them, by being outside them, by being in their way, in their collective lives.

     
The very wise woman who replaced me in the triumvirate of Split Britches was once heard to say: “Guilt requires a conscience; Shame requires an audience.” Guilt and shame are two of the building blocks of complex drama — as well as of complex sex — and I wonder if the converse isn’t true as well: that a conscience requires guilt, an audience, shame. The substance of this issue crystallizes like a dirty picture in a darkroom as I ask myself what was missing from Claudia Shear’s clean, pleasant production called Dirty Blonde, a dramatic meditation on the life of Mae West, at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York City.

     
Mae West as a subject presents a fascinating conundrum. A self-appointed object of desire, her image strikes me as almost redundant as theatrical subject: echo-like. The true sexiness of Mae West’s persona lies, for me, in prerogative, in her claiming of a fuck on her own terms. In Mae West’s time, this was a novelty; now it’s a gorgeous if familiar posture, the best embodiment of which is found in pop-star Madonna. She is hot; I’m not sure if I want to have her or be her, a great sign that the subject/object problem has been cancelled out in her persona. That never happens in Dirty Blonde, anymore than it would in a made-for-television movie about Madonna. As tough a challenge as Shear took on, I do think some insights into Mae West’s shame would at least have helped.

     
Playwright Claudia Shear enjoyed well-deserved success with her 1993-94 solo performance piece, Blown Sideways Through Life, which took audiences on a wry, gritty and humorous tour of the various temp jobs of its protagonist. Shear continues as a woman of many jobs in Dirty Blonde. Not only the playwright, she stars as Jo, a woman obsessed enough with Mae West to visit her grave every year on the siren’s birthday, as well as Mae West herself, colorfully portrayed, swagger and all. Shear is supported by two actors, Bob Stillman and Tom Riis Farrell, each precise and graceful in the many supporting roles he takes on. The play shifts with symbolic seamlessness between scenes from West’s life, as West tries to seduce a young admirer (Farrell), and Jo’s life, as Jo becomes increasingly involved with a man who shares her Mae West obsession.

     
As a woman who abjured both guilt and shame as she gamboled across stage and screen, West managed to be somehow wholesome in a what-you-see-is-what you-get kind of way. In delivering her with such fidelity, Shear offers us something perhaps more like impersonation than character. At its best, theater shows you more about a character than that character sees about herself, creates the illusion that you’ve entered the sanctity of that character’s mind without permission. But in Shear’s performance, we see little more of West than the image she intentionally projected to her public all her life.

     
The catalytic onus of shame therefore shifts to Charles Connor, a man obsessed with Mae West, whose guilt centers around his secret cross-dressing. Connor wears gowns West herself has given him in exchange for his slavish devotion, wining and dining her legendary narcissism. Jo also grows close to Connor after meeting him at West’s gravesite. The denouement of this play has to do with Jo’s ultimate willingness to face Connor in his Mae West gown, to see past it to his soul, and then right back to the surface again. But in her acceptance of the prepackaged pathos caused by the sight of a large, heterosexual man in sequins, heels and feather boa, both conscience and audience find only a mildly amusing, somehow unsatisfying release. Connor is supposed to be the one who carries the intrigue, whose shame we see, but we’re never given enough insight into his inner life — or the externalities, for that matter, his childhood, his relationships — for him to carry that weight. And in the presentation of Mae West as a woman without sexual privacy, the Peeping Tom status that can make theater sexy — and sex theatrical — vanishes for the audience. I couldn’t help but wonder if Shear, who proved herself a warm writer of sound intellect with Blown Sideways, was forced by the economic constraints of Broadway theater to edit the script down to this bite-sized, unsatisfying, package.

     
A handsome man sitting next to me in that intimate, beautiful theater kept laughing, kept clapping, kept saying out loud, That was a funny, funny line! and, I won’t forget that! He also yawned continuously and, ultimately, fell asleep. The curtain call woke him up, and for the first time that afternoon, I saw true manifestations of guilt and shame from a man full of muscles and contradictions and probably alcohol as well. Here, finally, was something hidden, something stolen from privacy . . . Sexy. I made a note to put that in a show sometime.


Dirty Blonde is playing at the Helen Hayes Theater, located at 240 W. 44th Street, New York City. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200

©2000
Deb Margolin and Nerve.com, Inc.