Film fans sit up and listen to Edith Lifestyle/Features Chron.com - Houston Chronicle
Film fans sit up and listen to Edith
Audience interacts in A Conversation With Edith Head
By EVERETT EVANS Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 23, 2008, 6:31PM
Movie buffs likely will gobble up A Conversation With Edith Head like a box of gourmet chocolates or, more to the point, a 24-hour Barbara Stanwyck marathon.
Susan Claassen's affectionate solo show portraying the legendary costume designer — who worked on more than 1,100 films from 1923 to 1981 and won a record eight Oscars — is at Theater LaB through Sunday.
Claassen certainly looks the part, sporting Head's trademark dark-rimmed, tinted glasses topped by black bangs and a tightly wound bun. She creates a distinctive voice characterization. She projects the drive, toughness, candor and unpretentious authority that make you buy her as Head.
A small, eccentric-looking yet powerful woman, Head always suggested a catlike inscrutability — the air of someone who knows where the bodies are buried, isn't going to tell, but uses the knowledge to her advantage. That's the most crucial quality Claassen conveys in her portrayal.
As the show's setup has it, Head's appearance takes place in 1981, during a break in her work on Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, which will turn out to be her final film. It's just a few weeks before her death, but no one knows that tonight.
Jonathan McVay, playing her Houston host, introduces the legend and hands her a stack of cards with questions submitted by audience members before the show. Answering those questions, sometimes directly, sometimes rambling far afield, cues an evening of mostly random reminiscence, with McVay politely veering Head back to the point when she grows too besotted with memories.
The audience participation angle is well-employed and fun, with Head asking who supplied each question, commenting on each person's sense of style (or lack thereof), even asking a few to step onstage for more extensive analysis.
One kibitzer whom we soon realize is a plant, asks the most challenging questions (i.e., didn't assistants do more design work than she on certain films?), even contradicts Head on dates and facts, to the point he gets on her nerves. The device is amusing but would work better if used more sparingly.
The fun stems mostly from Head's fond — if at times, tart — recollections of iconic stars and films. She speaks of form-fitting costumes to Mae West's full figure: "There was not one costume in which she could lie, sit or bend." We hear how Head solved Stanwyck's "figure challenge" to give her a new glamorous look in The Lady Eve. How Head put Dorothy Lamour in her first sarong in The Jungle Princess, the sarong becoming ever after Lamour's trademark. Of Hedy Lamarr's ravenous appetite on the set and Head creating her famous peacock feather cape in Samson and Delilah.
With its content derived from the book Edith Head's Hollywood, by Head and Paddy Calistro, the show is a skimming, lightly humorous stroll along cinematic Memory Lane. There are no bombshells, no big secrets revealed, either about the designer or the stars she dressed. Head believed in keeping them.
To the question "How would you describe your private life?," she responds:
"In a word ... private."
In later passages, the show flirts with deeper implications. Head hints at a psychic pain in being the woman behind the stars, in the intentionally subdued style she adopted so as not to compete with those mighty egos, a virtual self-effacement. Claassen strikes the evening's most poignant note recalling the impact of Gloria Swanson's performance at the premiere of Sunset Boulevard — and wondering whether her design work will be remembered as that of the stars on screen.
But Head is too practical a personality to indulge in self-doubt. She closes reasserting her supremacy — "perhaps not Hollywood's most endearing costume designer, but its most enduring." Who could argue?
Of course, this Conversation is more of an entertainment than a play. But for those who share Claassen's fervor for those great old classic films of yesteryear, it's certainly entertaining.