Through June 17
4040 Twigs St. (Old Town)
Wed & Thurs 7:30 p.m.
Fri 8 p.m.
Sat 3 & 8 p.m.
Sun 2 & 7 p.m.
Old Town theater company hits its stride with local talent
By Charlene Baldridge | SDUN Theater Critic
Longtime San Diegans may find it difficult to be objective about Cygnet Theatre’s production of Claudia Shear’s “Dirty Blonde,” considering Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray stages the work, and Melinda Gilb, Steve Gunderson and David McBean embody its multiple characters in all their likeability. Since they were theatrical pups, all four artists have been familiar to locals.
In fact, the only thing that falls short in the current endeavor is Shear’s script, based on an idea conceived with James Lapine. Those familiar with Shear’s works (“Restoration” premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in 2009) know she tends to go on a bit, perhaps understandably, due to her obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter.
In “Dirty Blonde” the subject is entertainer Mae West, famous for her overt sexiness, her stage and film productions peopled with hunky young men, her quotable one-liners, her glitzy gowns and boas and her big platinum hair.
Shear adores West. So do the main characters in her play, the mousy Jo (Gilb, who also plays the flamboyant Mae) and film librarian Charlie (Gunderson). To hilarious effect (and with huge assists from costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings and wig and makeup designer Peter Herman) Gunderson, as well as the facile and funny McBean – heartbreaking as West’s secret husband Frank Wallace – play all the men in West’s life.
Gilb adds dimension to both her characters, making the aging Mae, with whom the character Charlie interacts over a period of years in flashback, a sympatric and pathetic, yet admirable character. Her attempted seduction of the young Charlie is simultaneously sad and screamingly funny. As the insecure Jo, she has amazing depth.
Jo and Charlie meet cute in the mausoleum where Mae’s remains are interred. Their friendship and romance – Charlie has a penchant for dressing in Mae’s clothes – requires courage on his part and acceptance on hers.
The play unfolds in a series of scenes that alternate between Mae’s career on stage and screen, her meetings with the young Charlie, and the present attachment between Jo and Charlie. Gilb and Gunderson, who have been friends and colleagues since school days, make the friendship exceptionally poignant.
Aside from Murray’s astute direction and his uncanny ability to send up and admire simultaneously, the visual aspects of the production are priceless, the hats alone worth the price of admission. Despite the playwright’s tendency to wax long, the piece is lifted up by excellence in every aspect of theatrical craft. Scenic designer Sean Fanning creates a monochromatic, red and black playing area with gilt frames and projections that give locale and time.
Though sound designer Matt Lescault-Wood’s background music occasionally obfuscates dialogue, the overall sound design is fine and McBean serves as music director. Colleen Kollar Smith is choreographer. There must be as many lighting cues as there are quick changes and these are handled adeptly by Jennifer Brawn Gittings. Despite its intensity, all goes smoothly.
Cygnet has hit its stride in Old Town, developing and nurturing a group of resident artists familiar with the needs of the space. It is a splendid standard of excellence.