Benjamin Pither (left), Glenn Kiser (center) and Harry Breaux are Midwestern men recruited to play French ladies in a late ’20s pageant in Jordan Harrison’s intriguing Act a Lady at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photos by Lois Tema
Men in the `Act’ are once, twice, three times a `Lady’
A frustrated, god-fearing woman huffs and puffs with indignation: “What is art about a guy in a dress?”
Clearly, she’s never been to San Francisco.
But this woman, Dorothy is her name, has definitely not been to San Francisco. She’s a small-town Midwestern woman who reveres God and toes a straight moral line. She’s also one of the most interesting characters in Jordan Harrison’s Act a Lady, now at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.
Dorothy, or Dot, is the voice you expect to hear saying no, no, no in Harrison’s fact-based drama about an early 20th-century phenomenon that involved grand pageants put on across the South and Midwest in which the townsmen paraded around as fancy ladies.
Inspired by photographs in a Lanesboro, Minn., museum of women helping the men paint their faces and get into their dresses, Harrison wondered it must have been like for rural men to upend all expectations and conventions by playing women on the stage.
The result is a fascinating two-act play that aims to have some fun while it explores some serious gender issues.
The NCTC production, directed by Dennis Lickteig features a likeable cast with some standout performances.
The first comes from Scarlett Hepworth as Dorothy, the according-playing voice of conventional morality. But Dot, especially in Hepworth’s capable hands, is no screechy ideologue. Rather, she’s a deeply intelligent woman with strong convictions and a great love for her husband, Miles (a warmly dignified Harry Breaux), who is perhaps enjoying his role in the play as Lady Romola a bit too much.
Not only does Hepworth play the accordion with fleet fingers, she also sings beautifully and carries the heart of the show. Dot, it turns out, has had an open mind all along – she just didn’t quite know it.
Co-starring with Miles in the play-within-the-play – a wonderfully silly late 19th-century French farce about ladies with towering hair and big dresses (courtesy of costumer Jessie Amoroso) is one of the town’s rogues. True, as played by Glenn Kiser, has a reputation for running out on women and for liking his drink. Because it’s prohibition, he has to hide a bottle of pumpkin gin under the stage and sneak nips during rehearsal.
True’s eye is caught by the makeup artist helping director Zina (Michaela Greeley pictured above with Hepworth) convert the town’s men into ladies of the French aristocracy. The lovely young woman, Lorna (Laura Morgan), had been out in Hollywood working in pictures, but life was a little too fast out there, so she’s back home now. And she’s fascinated by True, whose masculinity is never in doubt, even as he seriously embraces his role as Countess Roquefort in the play.
Kiser’s True is tremendously appealing. You understand why Lorna would be drawn to him, just as you understand why one of the town’s lost young men, Casper (Benjamin Pither), would have an impossible crush on him as well. Casper, in his bow tie and argyle vest, has the most to gain from this production. Clearly a young gay man adrift in a world that has no idea what to make of him, Casper finds freedom in playing the drag role of Greta the Maid. He also falls hard for True off stage, and True, to his credit, handles Casper with all the compassion he can muster.
Pither is sweet and heartbreaking as Casper. When Harrison’s script starts to go off the rails – when the men start interacting with the roles they’re playing on stage and when the women start dressing as the men – the performances, especially from Pither, Kiser and Hepworth — keep the show focused and the emotional pulse alive.
The Act 2 trouble from the Ladies Christian Temperance Union never quite amounts to much, and after the strained farce of all the cross dressing and reality warping, the ending is downright corny.
But Harrison’s writing has flashes of brilliance.
Consider Dorothy’s heartfelt prayer before the men perform before the entire town (delivered with such warmth and believability by Hepworth):
“Lord, I hope it’s you workin’ through us tonight, and not you-know-who. Lord, help those boys get here fast and safe. Lord, help my husband be the star tonight and not the fool…Help this whole thing bring our town together somehow and not apart. Help it be art somehow, not just fellas stretchin’ out my delicates. I know you got a lot on your mind, Lord, but Lord, won’t you watch us tonight.”
Act a Lady continues through April 26 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org for information.