POSTED ON DECEMBER 7, 2011:
Early twentieth-century Sex teaches modern lessons
Think of the Midwestern Theatre Troupe, a group that has presented, among others, a show called Poona the ____ Dog (the blank being replaced with a word that starts with "f-," ends in "-uck," and sure ain't "fire truck"), and it likely comes as no surprise that their latest offering is called, very simply, Sex.
What might surprise, however, (a) is who wrote it, (b) when it was written, and (c) what happened when it was first produced.
a. Mae West
c. West was arrested mid-performance and hauled off to jail on indecency charges.
Artistic Director John Cruncleton has produced the play once before in 2003, but this time he brings it to the Nightingale stage. That's right. The same stage that has brought us Old Crow Confessions, the aforementioned play about Poona, and The Horsemeat Flea Circus Naughty Vaudeville Cabaret -- to name a few -- brings us a play from the 1920s, an era most of us associate with an innocence relative to today. But Cruncleton maintains that the show is relevant, though with its share of quaintness.
"It's a fairly pedestrian script in a lot of ways," he said. "It's melodrama and conventional in a lot of ways. But where it rises above that, I think, is in this characterization of the lead role which Mae West wrote for herself."
West seems to have been a forerunner of the empowerment of women -- celebrities in particular -- and Sex bears that out.
"It's sort of a distillation of her worldview, or the one she was tapping into. She was embodying one element of the times. It had a lot to do with female independence -- taking control of one's sexuality for one's own purposes," Cruncleton said. "That maneuver is smart. You see a lot of pop stars doing that."
Digging a little deeper into West and the production of her work here in town reveals some surprises -- perhaps first and foremost that she was writing plays about sex and drag queens, and quite a few ideas and issues that are a bit controversial even today, depending on to whom you're speaking. So many of us perceive West as the bombshell from a more apple-cheeked era -- one where her "Come up and see me sometime" catchphrase actually meant, "Come up and see me sometime," rather than, "Let's have sex."
Sara Wilemon, who plays Margy, the Mae West character, said that West was trying to bring out societal elements that we, even today, tend to try to ignore, hoping they'll go away, or at least not bother us.
"She was bringing this sort of -- well, I don't want to say, 'seedy underbelly,' but..." Wilemon trails off. "It's not conventional work. At the time, she was talking about drag queens and talking about prostitutes and sex and these things that weren't being put on stage. For me, I feel like that's what Nightingale does."
And she's right. Not that the Nightingale promotes prostitution. But the theater (and its resident troupe) does things a little differently. I mean, you'll probably never be going to see a production of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day there, unless maybe Alexander's day is punctuated by heroin use, a shot of penicillin and perhaps the death of a friend.
Again, though, Cruncleton referred to West's delivery and writing style. While she wrote about criminals and sexual escapades, she wasn't doing so in a way so as to flaunt it, nor was she defiantly shoving anything into her audiences' throats.
"Depicting the underclass and the criminal world -- she's certainly not the first writer to do that on American stage, but she did it in a fun way," Cruncleton said. "It's social commentary, but it's got all the spice of comedy, and that makes it easier to go back to that than some of the more earnest work of the time."
The play was a self-conceived and self-powered star vehicle for West, and things in the 1920s were pretty much the same as they are today in terms of sex and sensationalism selling tickets. But in order for that to work, there has to be a formidable force in the driver's seat. In describing that force present in the Nightingale's production, Cruncleton has high praise for Wilemon.
"If you don't have an actress that is going to go out there and project a star persona, there's really no point in doing it," he said. "We happen to have the queen of Kansas City burlesque available to perform in this."
Wilemon has performed burlesque for several years, perfecting a sexy-as-hell fan dance that ends up making an appearance in Sex. Fan dance? Burlesque? Sexy? Really? Yes, really. And one look at Wilemon reveals all you need to know about her, at least in terms of seeing the show: she's a bombshell in her own right, and there's really no other way to put it.
As if on cue, and to ensure that she is not perceived as a flighty exhibitionist with no real brains, Wilemon dropped some knowledge: "This show started reviving in the 90s in New York, and drag queens were playing this lead role. And there was the language. It's not really a barrier, but when West was talking about 'straight,' it meant 'legit.' When a drag queen says it, it ends up being a wink at the audience."
And then there's the prostitution that keeps sneaking into West's work.
"She kind of pokes at society, comparing prostitutes to these women who are marrying for money," Wilemon said. "And is there a difference between those two?"
Sex runs at the Nightingale Theatre, located at 1416 E. Fourth St., Dec. 9 and 10, and finishes its run Dec. 14-17. All shows start at 8pm. Tickets are $10 cash and are available at the door.
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