Sunday, August 04, 2019

“Sex”—Mae West as you never thought you’d see her!

Many know Mae West as a sex symbol and purveyor of bawdy double entendre, as well as an advocate of sexual independence. 

Did you know that she was also a playwright? 

Yes, Mary Jane West, who many know only from her famous lines, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough," "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful," and "It is better to be looked over than overlooked," wrote many play scripts including “Sex” which now is onstage at The Shaw Festival.

The pillar of sexuality had a seven-decade career as a performer in amateur shows and beauty contests, as well as vaudeville and Broadway productions.   She later moved to Hollywood where she gained fame and fortune on the silver screen. 

Her career was capped when The American Film Institute named her 15th among the greatest female stars of classic American cinema.

“When her cinematic career ended, she wrote books and plays and continued to perform in Las Vegas and in the United Kingdom, on radio and television, and she recorded rock and roll albums.”
West’s Broadway career started in 1926 with the play, “Sex,” which she wrote, produced and directed.  The production was panned by the critics.  One review stated, “The play is nasty, infantile, amateurish, and has vicious dialog.”  Another commented, “We were shown not sex but lust—stark naked lust.”

The city officials raided the theatre, arrested West and the entire cast.  She was prosecuted on morals charges and for "corrupting the morals of youth."

Instead of paying a fine, in a good publicity stunt, she chose to go to jail.  It is reported that “while incarcerated on Welfare Island, she dined with the warden and his wife; she told reporters that she had worn her silk panties while serving time, in lieu of the burlap the other girls had to wear. She served eight days with two days off for good behavior. Media attention surrounding the incident enhanced her career by crowning her the darling bad girl who had climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.”

Audiences loved the show and the arrest publicity and awarded it with good ticket sales for the 375 performance run.  The marquee boasted the bright, glittering word ‘SEX’ and posters were shouting “Sex with Mae West.”  

Eventually, “the guards of morality in New York had had enough.  After complaints from key religious and political figures permanently closed the show.”
What was the fuss all about?

The story centers on Margy LaMont, an ambitious prostitute, who, in search of a better life, travels from a Montreal brothel to a Trinidad night club to a Connecticut upper class dwelling.  The humorous and sex innuendo–loaded plot is filled with gangsters, sailors and society matrons while displaying both tongue-in-cheek and out-and-out humorous incidents and inciting language.
The production is cleverly directed by Peter Hinton-Davis.  Creative scene changes, inventive use of cross-dressing, and a key eye on the humorous, leads the audience on a fun-filled, often outrageous journey.

The cast is outstanding.  Diana Donnelly looks like Mae West, but wisely makes the role of Margy hers, not doing a West-like imitation.  She textures the lines, indicating not only a fine sense of comic timing, but the ability to wring meaning from the speeches.

Though it is sometimes hard to accept her as a him, Julia Course gives the correct illusions to the role of Jimmy, Margy’s wealthy young lover.

Fiona Byrne does a nice turn as Clara, the society woman caught in an act of deviance.

Jonathan Tan is touchingly brilliant as Agnes, a put-upon prostitute.

The costumes, set and lighting all enhance the production.

Capsule Judgment: “Sex” is a delightful surprise.  Besides getting a compelling production at The Shaw, it is an eye-opener into the life of an American sex symbol who not only fought censorship, but once quipped, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”  This is a must see show!

WHAT: “Sex”
WHERE:  Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre
WHEN:  Runs through October 13.