Bartell Theater’s newest queer-centered production “Act A Lady” graced the stage earlier this month in a flourish of feathers and exaggerated French accents. The production presents a real mind-bending viewing experience.
The plot of “Act a Lady” centers around middle-aged Miles (Donnovan Moen) and younger friends True (Davis Williams) and Casper (Shawn D. Padley) concocting a plan to put on a play in their little town of Wattleburg. Upon hearing that the play will involve hiring zesty director Zina (Abby Pawelski), Miles’ accordion-playing wife Dorothy (Mikayla Mrochek) strongly opposes.
When the play begins to actually take form, each character reflects on their own identity and lived experience. As the lines blur between each character’s character (confusing, right?!) and themselves, the audience realizes how boxes have been historically used to constrain people into gender roles and binaries.
As “Act A Lady” progresses, we are introduced to Lorna (Leigha Vilen) — a beautiful aspiring makeup artist who adorns the actors in 1800s-style fashionable dresses and excessive makeup for their performance.
Her entrance marked one of the first times the performance itself broke into a “play within a play.” Stepping off the raised stage where the audience had just received their first taste of the actors’ feminine alter-egos, Lorna addresses the audience directly.
“The first step to being pretty is powder!” Lorna exclaims. She presents a whole number to the crowd, preaching on how beauty can be discovered in anyone with the right tools.
As the audience adjusts to this confusing shift in the play’s mood and narration, the rest of the cast freezes in the background, as though they had been paused on a TV. The audience is fully immersed as character after character revert back to their “normal” selves and speak about their attitudes towards the play and dressing as women.
This structure was puzzling at first. It was difficult to pick up on; I only fully understood how the characters shifted from role to role halfway through the play. The actors utilized the room’s ground and the raised stage as separate entities. It was quite literally a play within a play.
The play picked up into more of a cohesive story as it progressed. We discover more about each of the character’s alter egos on stage and how those identities begin to blend into the realities of the men.
The women of the play also encounter personal challenges; Lorna falls in love with one of the men and Dorothy struggles to accept the fact that her husband enjoys dressing up as a woman and performing. Casper is another special case: he develops feelings towards a man. Although never explicitly stated in the script or by the actors, the audience is able to infer that Casper is a closeted gay man struggling to understand who he is.
This theme of expanding upon identity runs deep throughout the entire production. Serious topics are countered by a healthy dose of humor and dramatization of the actors when on stage.
Each man’s female character is overly flamboyant and high maintenance, and presents an enjoyable spectacle to watch. Bartell Theater’s actors did a respectable job at representing their characters and their character’s characters. Their ability to switch roles on stage so quickly is commendable.
Despite its perplexing layers of acting and its slightly tumultuous start, “Act A Lady” was an enjoyable viewing experience. I would not strongly recommend it as a first play to attend if you’re new to the scene, but if you’re up for a bit of a mind-bending, gender defying production, “Act A Lady” is a must-watch.