Review: SEX (at the Shaw Festival)

by Lynn on July 31, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Mae West

Directed by Peter Hinton-Davis

Designed by Eo Sharp

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Music direction by Ryan deSouza

Cast: Kristopher Bowman

Fiona Byrne

Julia Course

Diana Donnelly

Allegra Fulton

Katherine Gauthier

Cameron Grant

Monice Peter

Ric Reid

Ben Sanders

André Sills

Jonathan Tan

Mae West continues to surprise with this fascinating play of the seamier side of life and society, given a stunning, deeply thought production by Peter Hinton-Davis.

The Story.  It was written in 1926 by Mae West. Yes, that Mae West. The play ran in New York in 1926 for a year but then the police busted them and arrested the cast and Mae West for indecency. She starred in it. She was sentenced to 10 days in jail and served eight, getting off for good behaviour (which I’m sure she thought was an insult).

It’s about a street-smart prostitute in Montreal named Margy LaMont and the shady folks in her world of pimps, shakedown artists and the walking wounded of her profession. She meets a young rich man named Jimmy Stanton who falls in love with her, not knowing about her real background.  He wants to marry her and Margy really thinks she can make a go of going straight and wants to marry him too.  But there are complications…as there always are.

The Production. Peter Hinton-Davis directed this with flare, intelligence, exquisite details and economy. I think his ideas are terrific. He always gets me sitting forward in my seat, pondering his ideas, concept and always the play.

Eo Sharp has designed a set and costumes that grab you for all the right reasons. She fills the compact stage with luggage of all shapes and sizes. Since the play takes place in Montreal, Trinidad and upstate New York and the scenes change quickly from one location to another, then luggage says everything about movement, travel and impermanence. Luggage is used as props for easy-access containers for clothes instead of a closet and a trunk contains all manner of liquor and drugs for the scenes in the seedier locations. There is no need of a bar for this.  Clever.

Two beautiful end tables on which are huge vases of white gladioli say everything about Jimmy’s family’s elegant home in upstate New York.

With the help of his stellar team Hinton-Davis has created a dangerous world in which the characters have to have their wits about them. Bonnie Beecher’s muted lighting accentuates that sense of mystery. One can imagine people silently appearing from the gloom into muted light, providing a prickly presence. A detective, Dawson (Ric Reid) appears out of no where, lurking, watching and overseeing this ‘under’ world, ready to pounce.

Mae West has created a world and certainly Hinton-Davis’ direction realizes it in which the toughest people survive, such as Margy (a wonderful Diana Donnelly). It’s a world with allure and so society dames dabble in this ‘under’ world for adventure and pay the price; it’s a world in which rough charmers like Rocky (Kristopher Bowman) take advantage of those society dames, drug them and rob them. In a fascinating twist, Margy has a moral sense and knows the dangerous game Rocky is playing and stares him down.

Diana Donnelly gives a terrific performance as Margy. She is tough, wily, intelligent and strangely moral.

In Peter Hinton-Davis’ production there is gender-bending, an idea that one could reason in that world would not be out of place.  Jonathan Tan does a nice turn as Agnes, a friend of Margy’s. Tan is in heels, a long coat and makeup. He captures the fragility and femininity of Agnes, her anxieties about her abusive boyfriend and how she fits in that world.  Some women play police officers. This is 1926.

Julia Course plays Jimmy, Margy’s fiancé.  Course has her short, blonde hair slicked back and she wears fitted suits and is quite elegant in them. She has the stance and walk of a man here. But while I can accept the gender swapping in other cases, I’m having trouble accepting the conceit with Jimmy  played by a woman. I am not sure what is to be served by a delicate boned woman playing a man as a man. This is not to criticize Course’s acting—she’s a wonderful actress (witness her work as Laura in The Glass Menagerie.) The problem here to accept the conceit is mine.

But Hinton-Davis always gets me thinking and that’s the most important thing in the long run.

Comment.  Certainly in Sex Mae West displays her eye-popping way with dialogue. It’s the tough lingo of the street and she knows the colloquial usages for a gritty kind of play. One has to be mindful that this is 1926 so perhaps to our ears in 2019 the language might sound strange. Get over it. She creates a credible, gritty world. The characters are sharply drawn and have deep, colourful lives.

Mae West also wrote The Drag about homosexuality that is astonishing in its perceptions and The Pleasure Man that reads like so many one liners in a vaudeville show, but then packs a wallop at the end. Her novel Babe Gordon (or The Constant Sinner as it’s also titled) is startling in its clear-eyed dealing with an 18 year-old prostitute named Babe Gordon who focuses on men who can and want pay her way until she dumps them for someone better. And for an equally stunning read, there is her autobiography, “Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It.” At every turn, Mae West is much, much more than a sex symbol with flouncy body language and a way with a phrase. She wrote with perception of what one might call the seamier side of life and how society perceived it. She had a moral compass. At every single turn, Mae West surprises.

Produced by the Shaw Festival.

Began: June 21, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.


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