Men in wigs, tiaras and silk dresses with bustles. If this makes you giggle, then sign up for “Act a Lady.” The gender-bender comedy is the opening selection of the 30th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre.
“Act a Lady” goes deeper than just men in drag. It rests on the premise that male and female qualities reside in each person, and if forced to express an opposite gender, one might change his or her life for the better. Playwright Jordan Harrison explores these theories by focusing on what happens when three men in a small Midwestern town in 1927 bedeck themselves in huge frocks — and women’s delicates — and take to the stage for charity. By exploring their repressed feminine natures, the men come dangerously close to losing themselves to their female characters.
Harrison’s “play within a play” is laced with humor, wit, dynamic writing and delicious melodrama. (Harrison’s “Kid-Simple” was produced during the 2004 Humana Festival, and I adored it for the same reasons.) The construct is clever: The men — bitten by the Vaudeville bug — don’t perform a simple revue or a modern-day drag show. Instead, they act out catty and conniving aristocrats (from perhaps the 1700s) who wear fabulous gowns and fight over an emerald necklace and a mysterious suitor. The three women in Harrison’s two-act play — a dominatrix director, a Hollywood makeup artist and a God-fearing accordion player — teach the men to walk like women and apply face powder.
It is an imaginative play, and director Anne Kauffman is in sync with Harrison’s vision. But while I enjoyed much of it, the play ultimately comes up short. By keeping it stuck in a melodrama, Harrison doesn’t dig deep enough. The female characters the men portray represent some of the worst — and most superficial — parts of femininity. The tender, nurturing side of the sex is missing, as well as any discussion of motherhood.
With the men exploring so few facets of what it means to be a woman, it is difficult to completely buy Harrison’s argument. The result is that “Act a Lady” is a farcical, fun romp with enough to keep the senses entertained, but little in the way of character development or true depth.
Surprisingly, this does not detract from some of the better elements. Harrison’s vocabulary is astounding, and he moves easily from the thick language of the Midwest to the flourishes of the French aristocracy. Costume designer Lorraine Venberg’s costumes, from the Argyle sweaters and wool caps to the gowns festooned with bows, are sure to delight.
Much of the acting is superb, with Sandra Shipley standing out as Zina, the diva director. Shipley struts in a vest, jodhpurs and knee-high boots while snapping a riding crop and speaking in a syrupy accent. The three men, Paul O’Brien, Steven Boyer and Matt Seidman, move easily from their male and female roles. Suzanna Hay and Cheryl Lynn Bowers are convincing as their female characters begin to adopt some aspects of their male counterparts.