MacDougall has `Sex’ appeal

This month, if you’re looking for good Sex, you may need to head for Berkeley.

This week, the Aurora Theatre Company opens Mae West’s 1926 show Sex starring Delia MacDougall as Margy LaMont, the role West originated herself.

MacDougall, a familiar face to Bay Area audiences (she most recently died onstage in California Shakespeare Theater’s King Lear), grew up in Mountain view and remembers her mother taking her to Palo Alto’s Stanford Theatre to see old movies.

“My mom was a big fan of Mae West’s and would quote her all the time,” MacDougall says from her San Francisco home. “I loved all those sexy pre-Code 1930s ladies. I think Mae West had something to her that was more powerful than any of them — more sexual but not very sexy. She was a powerful, sexual woman.”

Of course young Delia didn’t necessarily know what West was talking about.

“It still takes me a while to catch on — she makes innuendo out of everything.”
Even before MacDougall was approached by Aurora artistic director Tom Ross about playing West’s role in Sex, the busy actor/director was something of a West aficionado.

“I saw her films then started reading the biographies. I was impressed by the paths she cut,” MacDougall says.

After an audition for another Aurora show, MacDougall was sensing she didn’t get the part when Ross handed her the Sex script. The first few pages had MacDougall hooked, and she knew she wanted to do the show.

“The character, Margy LaMont, is clearly a prostitute, and that’s what was so upsetting to people at the time,” MacDougall explains. “She’s very real, which is a funny thing to associate with Mae West. In the ’20s, prostitutes onstage had to suffer and die at the end. Audiences had to believe there was good in them somewhere. But with Margy, it’s not like that.”

Sex got bad reviews when it opened, but, as you might imagine, audiences adored it. It ran for a year before the City of New York sent the police in to shut it down. West was arrested on a morals charge and served eight days in prison (though legend has it she was allowed to wear her silk underwear in jail).

Of course, being the Madonna of her day, West turned all the publicity to her advantage, wrote more plays (most of which were shut down or forced out of town) and made her way to Hollywood.

Because Sex emerged before the West persona was set in curvy stone, the character of Margy is, as MacDougall puts it, “more man- and society-angry than later West characters. Mae had a better sense of humor than Margy.”

Consequently, MacDougall does not have to do an out-and-out West imitation, though she is working on her shimmy.

“I think it’s a good play — it’s not Inherit the Wind but it moves quickly, you don’t know where it’s going and it has characters you love,” MacDougall says. “And Mae always wrote that Margy is in a clinch, so I love playing the part because I’m always in the arms of some guy.”

This will be the year MacDougall chose Sex over Christmas (the sex jokes just never end with a title like that). She was all set to go back into American Conservatory Theater’s annual A Christmas Carol, but decided to opt for West’s play.

“I don’t know how many more years I can be in a play called Sex,” she says.
If you’d like to sample a little of West at her best before you head to Sex, which is directed by Ross and features Maureen McVerry, Danny Wolohan, Steve Irish, Robert Brewer, Kristin Stokes and Craig Jessup, MacDougall recommends West’s first movie, Night After Night, in which a hat-check girl says to West, “Goodness, what lovely diamonds.” To which West replies, “Dearie, goodness had nothing to do with it.”

MacDougall also recommends listening to West’s song “A Guy What Takes His Time.”

The Aurora’s Sex continues through Dec. 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40 to $42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Review: “American $uicide”

(opened Feb. 12, 2007)
Jackson, actors commit American $uicide at Thick House
three stars Zesty satire

If “American Idol” ended each episode with a bullet instead of wild applause, some of us might stop watching. And some of us might start.

We love our reality TV in this country, and, truth be told, we love our violence. So far, the two haven’t collided much (discounting “Fear Factor” if only because “Fear Factor” should always be discounted).

That’s where director/writer Mark Jackson comes in. He’s still on a hot streak that began last fall with his Salome at the Aurora Theatre Company and continued through The Forest War with Shotgun Players.

With American $uicide, now at the Thick House in San Francisco, Jackson gives us something completely different: an ultra-contemporary twist on a banned Russian play.

While researching his brilliant The Death of Meyerhold, Jackson came across Nikolai Erdman, a writer whose second play was the biting comedy The Suicide. Finished in 1928, the play was a hot property, with multiple theater companies competing to produce it. But the Soviet government banned it for its supposed anti-government content. Stalin himself called the play “empty and even harmful.” Erdman was reportedly exiled to Siberia several years later and never wrote another play.

With the support of Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays, Jackson picks up where Erdman left off and gives us a wickedly funny, wonderfully warped mish-mash of human desperation, celebrity lust and good old American zeal.

As a writer, Jackson sets his action in the present day, but he’s clearly working in a 1930s stage comedy style with rapid-fire, exaggerated delivery and over-the-top characters. As a director, he takes that style to the next logical step: ’40s-style screwball comedy complete with pratfalls, broken dishes and zany costumes (by Raquel Barreto).

At the center of the story is a sincere sad sack named Sam Small (the incredibly funny Jud Williford, pictured above). He’s unemployed and ashamed that he has to rely on his waitress wife’s “greasy tips” and stolen sausages to survive.

His hardworking wife, Mary (Beth Wilmurt, a comedienne of the highest order), wants to help her husband out of his depression, so when he finally admits his secret desire to be an actor, she does her darndest to be a good cheerleader.

With the help of his across-the-hall neighbor, Albert (Marty Pistone), and his girlfriend Margaret (Denise Balthrop Cassidy), who make money on eBay and with their very own porn site, Sam makes his tentative way into show business.

This is when the personalities start to leap off the stage. We get a desperate, overly tan film director (Michael Patrick Gaffney) and a 22-year-old starlet (Jody Flader) _ the next big thing who’s also making a comeback. But best of all, we get Gigi Bolt, a former director at the National Endowment for the Arts and the current executive director of the Theatre Communications Group.

Bolt is a real person, but her presence here — in the divine form of Delia MacDougall, left, at her most Carol Burnett-ish — is sort of an inside joke. What’s funny for anyone who knows Bolt or not is the character’s grand dame theatricality. “Life is projected, transmitted and downloaded but no longer LIVED!” she intones.

Once Sam meets all these characters, he gets bamboozled into an outrageous scheme that has him committing suicide on live TV, with viewers bidding astounding sums to have him die in their name or in the name of their cause.

Sam agrees to do this because it will ensure his wife won’t have to work anymore. Gigi wants him to die in the name of American theater. The starlet wants him to die out of love for her in the hope that the attention might revive her career. And so on.

Going into intermission, which occurs just after MacDougall’s big scene, I was thinking “American $uicide” was just about the funniest thing I’d seen since Hunter Gatherers last summer.

But Act 2 disappoints if only because the build-up to the actual suicide — which takes place in a high N-R-G dance club (sturdy, flexible set by James Faerron) — results in an almost inevitable anti-climax. By this point we have Middle Eastern operatives and government baddies in the mix (all ably played by Liam Vincent), but Jackson’s sharpness dulls.

The play is so frenzied and fun that I wanted all the darker currents to amount to more. I had hoped that while we were having a great time watching the show, Jackson’s satirical saber was slicing into us more than we realized.

That doesn’t quite happen, but American $uicide, in all its grandly theatrical glory, remains a comedy to die for.

For information about American $uicide, visit www.zspace.org.