Theater archives

West With the Might


What do the 1926 Sex and the 1999 Extreme Girl have in common? Plenty, from slinky lingerie and a red velvet sofa to some ballsy attitudes about women. Of course, Mae West was ahead of her time—pulling 10 days in jail on a morals charge for her play. It wasn’t just the hip wriggling and smutty asides that outraged reigning decency. It was her kick in the groin to establishment hypocrisy.

In Sex, West spins a typical melodrama tongue-in-cheek—and her harlot emerges, well, on top. Margy, the Montreal working girl originally played by West, is unashamed of her trade and unafraid of her thuggish pimp. When he drugs and robs a rich socialite, leaving her nearly dead on Margy’s hands, Margy rescues her. When the victim, afraid for her reputation, frames the helpful whore, Margy swears revenge. She beats it out of Montreal, takes Trinidad by storm, and, in a neat twist, finds love, revenge, and moral superiority all at once.

Elyse Singer’s production bursts with verve and naughtiness. She directs in a style both of the period and mocking it, interspersing song and dance interludes derived from trial documents. These slightly amateurish tableaux work fine but are really unnecessary—West created her own ironic distance within the play. Songs from West’s movies intensify the period flavor, as do an onstage piano player, fabulous flesh-tone undies, and sizzling jazz backgrounds.

The able 10-member ensemble, playing 17 parts, tease their stereotyped roles into pungent farcical cameos. Carolyn Baeumler lacks West’s gritty ballast, but her saucy, cynical Margy has zing. She makes the raunchy most of her double entendres, shaking her boobs and leering: “These may not be jelly, but they will get you in a jam.”

Also delectable are Nina Hellman’s homesick prostitute Agnes, T. Ryder Smith’s veddy British sailor, Andrew Elvis Miller’s androgynous rich boy, and Cynthia Darlow’s thrill-seeking matron.

** You can hear Westian one-liners in Barbara Blackburn’s solo show Extreme Girl, too. One of her colorful characters is a dominatrix who urges women to practice power by facing down buses and making them stop. “And, if it’s a kneeling bus,” she adds, cracking her whip and smirking, “make it kneel.”

This black-booted sexpot is one of a series of female “types” created by Blackburn—in skits that range from mildly amusing to

wickedly funny—which ask the question: How should women use their sexuality? To be strong and rule or to be passive and please?

Her most cutting creation is a Gallic-accented temptress reminiscent of Catherine Deneuve. Recumbent and purring contentment, she slyly reveals how she “became” French out of distaste at the “prospect of becoming an American woman.” She has withering contempt for the readers of magazines that recommend makeovers, women desperate for approval “like puppies, only less charming.” Blackburn’s haughty delivery is priceless here, and she is just as sneakily satiric as a miniskirted sex kitten expounding the virtues of bimboism.

Blackburn’s other caricatures—like a “recovering centerfold” and a spokesperson for a mechanized woman created by Mercedes Benz—tend to make the same points to lesser effect. But she also inhabits a few more rounded folks who she nails with rich and original detail, like a teenager whose post-Heathcliff idea of love is “to haunt the shit out of somebody.”

Director Courtney Munch cleverly employs a multilevel set, witty costumes, and musical accompaniment. They all nicely back up Blackburn, who—using her striking beauty to brainy effect—proves once again, like Mae West, that the sexiest women are the smartest.