Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: ACT A LADY

Asuka's production of 'Act a Lady'is a strong one, but Toby Zinman found the play unfunny and trite.

Review: ACT A LADY


By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

Azuka Theatre inaugurates its handsome new performance space  with Jordan Harrison’s Act A Lady. The First Baptist Church is the new home of the Off-Broad consortium, and  it’s a welcome addition to the crowded venue scene in Philadelphia.

Act a Lady was developed during the first of PlayPenn's new-play Conferences in 2005 and went on to success at the Humana Festival in Louisville the following year. It has since swept the regional theaters of the country, with production after production. Azuka’s  boasts  excellent sets (designed by Meghan Jones) and  not-funny-enough costumes (designed by Alisa Sickora Kleckner). Director Kevin Glaccum uses the stage space and the big red curtain cleverly to hide and reveal.

It’s the kind of play dear to the hearts of small theater companies: it starts from the well-worn premise of  a hick town that says, “I know, kids, let’s put on a show.” There is the tough, pants-wearing city-slicker female director (the excellent Amanda Schoonover) and a Hollywood make-up artist (Megan Slater) on a mission.

There are three local guys (Mike Dees, Matt Tallman, Jamison Foreman), overalled and work booted, who are asked to wear women’s clothes and “act a lady.”  There is an accordion-playing, God-fearing wife (Leah Walton). She will feel the transformative power of drama while the men will feel the transformative power of costumes and discover their inner ladies.

Harrison’s script seems to want to be an investigation of the tricky borders of sexual identity while investigating the way theater can override prejudices, win over hearts and minds, and reveal truths otherwise hidden in real life.


All this has been said and done a million times before. What can raise such a show above the hackneyed is the play-within-the-play, providing a clever reflection of or commentary on the frame play. But here the silly plot about a countess and an emerald and a lover named Valentino is nearly unfollowable and merely provides an excuse for fancy gowns and wigs. There are potentially intriguing scenes where the line between  reality and theater  blur, although those, too, seem merely an excuse for costume changes as the women in the cast become, temporarily, the male characters.

Act a Lady could have been an interesting inquiry homosexuality (“you’re scared there’s a lady in there tryin’ to get out”)and/or a feminist protest (“There’s no trick to playing a lady—just less. As if your very existence fatigues you.”). But although Harrison flirts with these ideas, he seems unable or unwilling to pursue them, and reverts to easy drag farce. The  whole business winds up in a corny, sentimental testimonial to the Power of Art.

Azuka Theatre at First Baptist Church, 17th & Sansom Sts. Through Nov.20. Tickets $15-27. Information: 215-733-0255 or


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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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