Mae West, the Depression-era starlet and sex symbol, once said, “I never loved anybody as much as I loved myself.”
For most of us, the only time we’re told to put ourselves first is on airplanes, in the event that our oxygen masks deploy.
The cultured world condemns those who live for themselves boldly, who ungraciously satiate their own appetites.
The more we’re enabled to expose ourselves to the camera (iPhone that syncs directly to Facebook), the more reticent we become to flaunt ourselves—our authentic selves—in the face of celebrity.
But West was a master at flouting social mores, becoming famous for sexual innuendo at a time when women were discouraged from even thinking about it.
Live Arts kicked off its 25th season with a trumpeting call for such a life less ordinary—with gilded stage panels, red velvet swags and Claudia Shear’s Dirty Blonde, a play that follows West’s life and two of her less-than-conventional admirers.
The show begins with a pair of starry-eyed monologues about what it means to be a tough woman. Jo is a Brooklyn-born temp and aspiring actress stuck firmly in singledom. Charlie is a New York Public Library film archivist who has a penchant for cross-dressing. Both, it turns out, are West fanatics who meet on her birthday, at her family mausoleum.
As they quote one-liners with startling rapidity, the pair form a friendship that’s more tentative than unlikely, revealing to the audience their individual self-consciousness around the opposite sex.
The seeds of their love story sprout between scenes that follow the evolution of West herself. We meet the legend in 1911, when she’s a vaudeville nobody committed to shocking stage managers with flashes of thigh and bawdy double entendres.
Told repeatedly that women can’t do things like shimmy on stage and “accidentally” snap their dress straps, West returns undaunted. If anything, her Bushwick accent, come-hither lip curl and trademark “ohh-wah” cement themselves more firmly in her repertoire. She seems to know instinctively that public approval is the last one in the door, and the first one out.
West took inspiration from life outside the norm. Throughout her career, she supported socially maligned minorities (most notably homosexual men and cross-dressers, whom she wrote about and cast as failed drag queens in her 1927 show, The Drag).
Dirty Blonde tells the story of how she used sex (the act, the aura, the intrigue) and self-confidence to leapfrog the status quo and seize pivotal opportunities. These included the production of her first script, Sex (for which she became famous after being arrested for public indecency), and her first film deal, which she landed after a bit part she spiced up with a self-written one-liner.
The play is—like the 5′-tall West—a burst of glitter in a small package. In the intimate space of the Gibson Theater, three actors and hard-working stagehands cycled through one quick scene change after another.
There are bowlers and ball gowns and feather boas (for the men as well as the ladies). Daniel Sterlace and Rick Harris play eight and six characters, respectively, while Anna Lien toggles between two.
What the actors do exceedingly well is inhabit the unique space of each character. We feel safe and assured as flashbulb scenes alter to a new time and space; we don’t doubt who we’re looking at, even as they straddle alternate worlds back-to-back.
The show is fun and funny, which depends of course on smart timing. We owe such amusement to a crew that excels at clever props, music, lighting, costumes and backstage management, expertly wrapped and conducted by director Christina Courtenay.
The most striking thing about West and the actress who plays her is the forthrightness with which she speaks. She doesn’t pout or simper or purr or coo; she’s brassy and curvy and flaunts her sexuality like the emblem of power she knows it is.
The real West refused to dim her blinding personality, even when she was 87 and starring in the movie Sextette, which featured West as the ultimate sex goddess surrounded by swanning muscle men.
The New York Times called the film a “disorienting freak show” and suggested “Granny should have her mouth washed out with soap, along with her teeth.” How dare she, the reviewer seems to imply, continue to be what she always was. Even when it’s no longer appealing.
But West knew all along that public acceptance was never the point of the exercise. Her unapologetic, unflinching self-love was the flame that attracted so many moths in the first place.
In one scene, Charlie suggests that Jo dress up like West. It’s the meeting of past and present plot lines, and every person onstage falls in love with the woman becoming one to whom social rules don’t apply.
But later, after Jo discovers his negligee, Charlie panics and yells, “Am I going to be one of your crazy stories?” It’s a moment that sums up the core conflict for most of us: We want to be approved of, to be loved, to be known and to be remembered. But that flame that draws the moths—our differences—are most often the quality we’re too scared to reveal.
Like Jo, we might find ourselves shocked by the straight man who loves wearing women’s clothes—though he freely admits that his is the universal desire to release the private self from fear and risk by stepping into an explosive persona.
Of course, West herself said it best: “People who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.”
So try on this advice and shock yourself today. Let your hair down. Have more fun than you should. Try loving yourself most of all.
Dirty Blonde plays at Live Arts through November 8.