by Michael Bowen

Going over the top is harder when, on the inside, you feel like you've hit bottom. Mae West flaunted all the glittering curves and facets of her sexuality because -- mix and match your explanations, folks -- she was vain, she wanted to be famous, she was a pioneer in breaking down society's puritanical repressions or she just wanted to get lucky.

At one point in ARt's version of Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde (through Oct. 10), Mae gives a more-than-flirtatious wiggle and calls herself "a bad little girl who was good to the Navy." All those handsome hunks in the movies didn't want to be seen with her and touch her for nothing. On the other hand, as one of her fans in this play suggests, "she never let herself really learn how to love -- anyone other than herself."

There are a lot of attractions in Dirty Blonde, ARt's second-ever production, making it the best show of a very young theater season. There's Shear's script, which bounces from Mae's vaudeville exuberance to has-been shabbiness, from her movies to episodes in the lives of two of her biggest fans.

There's Chad Henry's direction, which juggles three actors expertly and trusts the audience to catch allusions and connections without the highlights of exaggerated acting.

But maybe the chief attraction is simply the chance to see Michael Weaver in drag. Weaver's character takes his Mae-adoration a bit far, so he strips to his skivvies, dons a sequined gown and false eyelashes, and -- well, even then you'd only mistake him for Mae West if it was extremely dark and you were extremely drunk.

But then that's part of the point: By making this into a story not only about Mae but about her fans as well, Shear underscores Mae West's enduring influence. By the conclusion, in showing us not one but two people dressed up as Miss West, Shear suggests that there's a little bit of Mae -- aggressive, frankly sexual, lonely -- inside each of us.

For unavoidably, the star of this show -- in real life as on the Spartan Playhouse stage -- is Mae West herself, as impersonated here by Christina Lang. Playing both Mae and one of Miss West's biggest fans, Lang transforms herself from an urban mouse -- open to new experiences, but her hair's pulled back in a bun -- to an understated version (if that's possible) of the Queen of Doubles Entendres. Lang can do things with a feather that make men give her a standing ovation -- but she also knows how to make it sensual without making it crude, just the way Mae did. (Those risqu & eacute; lines are always sexier if listeners realize, with a start, that the sexual content is largely inside their own heads.)

Lang's performance is fascinating: She differentiates among the ballsy vaudeville girl, the vain crone, the brassy stage persona and the eccentric but shy latter-day fan. It's a performance befitting the memory of a great star. And Mae deserves it, because she only seems like some olden-days joke in some movie with W.C. Fields (who's actually one of the nine different characters that Weaver plays here). Actually, Mae was not ahead of her time -- she was ahead of ours.

Tralen Doler -- recruited along with director Henry by artistic director Weaver from Montana's Bigfork Summer Playhouse -- also plays a range of characters: Mae's lovers and co-vaudeville acts, broken-nosed boxers and queens with scarves. He even plays the piano.

The show is technically accomplished. Sound designer Peter Hunrichs coordinates a variety of offstage noises and voiceovers. Brandon Smith's stripped-down backstage set contributes to the self-conscious theatricality of Dirty Blonde: Mae and her boys are puttin' on a show for you here, folks. Costumers Lisa Caryl and Rebecca Cook bring on the gowns without drowning in sequins. And Dean Bourland's lighting scheme ranges from vaudeville pin spots to the kind of late-afternoon dust-speck slats of light that pick out the sagging beauty of a used-to-be Hollywood star.

Ten years ago, both Weaver and Lang were in one of Interplayers' best-remembered shows, a drama about the national debate over abortion called Keely and Du. Dirty Blonde is a different kind of show, and Weaver and Lang's artistic associates are different this time around. But they're still weaving the same kind of theatrical magic. People will be talking about Dirty Blonde around here for some time -- it's the kind of show that local theatergoers will regret missing.

Perhaps that's because, as the opening dialogue tells us, tough girls like Mae West aren't bad. They're tough because they're sensual and self-assertive and because they don't want anybody tellin' 'em otherwise. Kinda like many of us.

Girls, after all, just wanna have fun. Especially the tough ones.

Publication date: 09/30/04

Juneteenth at Spark Central @ Spark Central

Sat., June 19, 12-7 p.m.
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.