There is no chance at all that any of those involved with the Canadian première of Mae West’s in-depth look at the life and times of a practising prostitute will receive so much as a misdemeanour much less jail time for indecency (West was sentenced to ten days as a “guest” of the New York City after a run of over a year).
This production—wisely staged in the appropriately intimate confines of the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre—was a visual tour de force, but had to leave most viewers wondering just what all the fuss was about in 1927.
Director Peter Hinton-Davis alongside designers Ep Sharp and Bonnie Beecher (lighting) have collectively demonstrated a magnificent array of efficient creativity that is seldom seen on the boards of present-day theatres in this era of watching the budget as closely as the script.
The visual set piece of employing all manner of trunks, valises and suitcases to “dress” the stage—particularly the Caidoux Street apartment, Trinidad Café and a nearby hotel lobby—fired on all clasps as we learned that many of these pieces of luggage held important props or even a fully stocked bar (with a side order of heroin).
The challenge of assembling/reassembling these discreetly numbered cases seemed as effortless as flashing some coin and bedding a Jane. All of the cast moved about with the greatest of ease adding scene-shifting flow that also relied on music (and a lot of that produced on stage by several of the troupe doubling as the band!), convincing one and all that we were somewhere else.
Using what sounded like old-fashioned camera flash powder and artfully popping party balloons certainly achieved the desired startling effects as related mini-tableaus captured both the ear and imagination.
The gender-blind casting worked well on many levels. Julia Course providing Curley with a fine bundle of nerves (watch for the shaking hand—a detail worthy of Zeffirelli’s singular skills). Doing double duty as “million-heir” Jimmy Stanton, Course was delightfully naïve, gullible and, yes, boyish. Jonathan Tan turned in a beautifully nuanced performance as perpetually down-on-her-luck Agnes (and also delivered a much-appreciated reedy clarinet solo during one of the transitions).
At the centre of it all, of course, was the role West wrote (er, well mostly—some authorship controversies remain) for herself. Diana Donnelly took the honours playing Margy Lamont. She was at her best during the argumentative moments with either her creepy pimp (done up with fine slime by Kristopher Bowman) or—hilariously, a plot twist of the highest order—potential mother-in-law Clara Stanton (Fiona Byrne never disappoints).
The problem is, even as we suspend disbelief, the loving couples: Agnes/Curley, Jimmy/Margy, fail to generate any sexual heat—instead generating “Well, Gertrude, it’s the 21st century so anything goes.”
The real passion comes off and on between Lieutenant Gregg (a well-balanced outing from André Sills) and Margy. Their sequel, Sex Down Under, could well make the R-rated list. Writers: fuel your pens!
Kudos also to Ric Reid as on-the-take gumshoe, Dawson, then too-busy-making-money-to-love Robert Stanton as well as Cameron Grant (a quartet of parts including the husky Sailor Gordon and oh-so-sultry Carmentina).
“Sex” is vigourously declaimed many times during the show, but most of its fire must remain in the hearts and minds of our “dirty” (see morality, 1920s) minds. JWR