Berkshire Bright Focus
Directed by Laura Margolis.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman 7/13/13
"Stop with the sugar act—you'll give me diabetes."
Final work on the horror flick "Die! Die, My Darling!" starring Stephanie Powers and Tallulah Bankhead was completed, the story goes, when Bankhead dubbed, or looped, one line that had been messed up by the movement of the sound boom. It was a convoluted line and not one that made much of an impression when all was said and done. Nevertheless author Matthew Lombardo has made a play out of this post-production experience and that play now graces the stage at Stageworks Hudson, in Hudson, New York. Bankhead, looped in other ways, appears hours late at her Hollywood studio's sound department for her recording session in this play and proceeds to literally bring down the joint with laughter, tears, booze, drugs and sexual chatter, memories and madness.
What is essentially "mad" about the experience here are the facts. The film was a UK, and not a Hollywood, product, made in England by Hammer Films at the Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, produced by Anthony Hinds and edited by John Dunsford (represented here by the very Hollywood-styled Danny Miller, played by Michael Rhodes). It was released in the USA by Columbia Pictures which also produced it. The play is set in a recording studio in Los Angeles which Bankhead has not been able to find while driving her Bentley around town. This actually mirrors an experience she suffered in London in the 1920s when she paid a cabbie to lead her to her destination while she followed along in her British Bentley. A lot of this sort of thing has gone into this play and the resultant piece works well in spite of these lifts from reality.
What works less well here is the use of an actress who cannot bring to life the essence of Bankhead. Under the fine guidance of director Laura Margolis the American television actress Colleen Zenk who appeared for 32 years on "As the World Turns" turns in a rather youthful impression of the southern actress who is, presumably, 65 years old in this play. Many of her lines are actual quotes, statements uttered by the actress herself over a forty or so year period. Some lines are much more obviously the playwright's. What emerges in this melange of lines is more caricature than character, however, and though there are thoroughly realistic moments here, including the call from Bankhead's sister and her own breakdown as memory of a very difficult stage appearance overwhelms her, it is hard to overcome the need for full and proper imitation. This is something Zenk cannot do. She is too much a lightweight in the vocal department and the basso boom of Tallu's famous voice is just completely out of her reach. The physical limitations of a tiny woman who has reached a certain age are also beyond her; her co-workers need to be taller than the play's heroine so that she can dominate them with ease from her physical toy-world.
What Zenk does do is play a character with the same name as the real-life star, a character who comes across as much like Bankhead as Bette Davis did in the 1950 film "All About Eve." The costume she wears is one that looks like a cross between a Bankhead original and Davis copy, a dress that is worn for cocktails and not for looping a line. This follows the show's original costume concept work by Valerie Harper. It is, quite simply, the wrong costume and its use is probably indicated in the script somewhere, a physical pacifier in a way, as it gets you thinking about a famous photo of the actress (you choose) who played Bankhead imitating Davis playing Bankhead again in a Broadway revue.
Michael Rhodes as the fictitious American film editor Danny Miller is an excellent actor who makes us sympathize with a man who does little other than lie about himself and his interest in the actress Tallulah Bankhead. This is a difficult role and like other male roles in recent plays about powerful, real women it is the focal part. While the play may claim that "Bankhead" is the topic in truth it is the story of a man coming to grips with the realities of his own embittered life. The comedy and grandeur of the famous woman may be what you come for, but you leave with something quite different courtesy of the playwright and the actor.
As the technician Steve, Steven Austin Young presents a full-blooded character who is both professionally and personally involved with his fellow prisoners of the studio. Young uses a charming persona to create a memorable third wheel in the adventure of looping a line.
Randall Parsons realistic set is one of the most perfect designs I have seen at Stageworks Hudson and its solidity adds immeasurably to the success of this play. George S. Veale VI's costumes define the characters accordingly. Frank DenDanto III's lighting captures the mood changes of the play well, making this a comedy in the class of the Maria Callas play "Master Class" by Terence McNally. Ben Heyman's sound design also helps to define difficult moments in the play.
It is Laura Margolis who holds the reigns here and she does it by giving her three horses their heads but keeping them moving forward in her desired direction. The play has not one false moment and the comedy works as well as it ever could. You have to suspend your disbelief and accept the lightweight actress as a heavyweight actress and give reality a very wide pass to get into Margolis' production but once you do you have a good evening of theater in front of you.
"Looped" may not win awards for the best play of the year but it surely is a good way to spend a summer evening. Sometimes that is all you should expect. Sometimes the reward is a conversation that keeps the show alive for a good long while after you've left the theater. That is what happens here.
Berkshire On Stage
Tallulah Bankhead is "Looped" at Stageworks/Hudson
Directed by Laura Margolis.
Reviewed by Roseann Cane 7/25/13
Tallulah Bankhead made her last film, "Die! Die! My Darling!," in 1965. By then, the actress, more celebrated for her flamboyant personality and uncensored proclamations about her sexual appetite than for her artistry, suffered from the effects of decades of smoking (reportedly 150 cigarettes daily), drinking, and reliance on cocaine, among other drugs. She died in 1968 at the age of 66.
Playwright Matthew Lombardo was inspired to write "Looped" by an event that occurred during the production of Bankhead's final screen appearance. Because of a technical snafu, the actress was summoned to loop (re-record) one line of dialogue. The star showed up at the L.A. recording studio drunk and drug-addled, and unable–or unwilling–to retain the line. And so she held hostage the frustrated technicians as they descended into eight hours of Tallulah land.
At Stageworks/Hudson, July 10-28, 2013, "Looped" opens as film editor Danny Miller (Michael Rhodes) seems ready to implode in frustration as he awaits the arrival of the hours-late Bankhead. Sound technician Steve (Steven Austin Young), a level up in the sound booth, takes everything in stride. He is on the clock, after all. Eventually Bankhead (Colleen Zenk) makes her grand entrance, a little wobbly in her black stilettos. She languorously unbuttons an elegant fur coat to reveal a spectacular royal purple dress.
"Looped" is a visual delight. George W. Veale VI's fine costumes, especially that fabulous purple dress, marry handsomely with Randall Parsons's creamy, neutral, textured set. Frank DenDanto III's lighting and Ben Heyman's sound enhance the production, moving it along seamlessly.
Laura Margolis's direction is at once elegant and tight, precisely reflecting the individuality of each character and spurring the action at a steady clip.
Young's performance as Steve is spot-on. Rhodes captured my interest. His frustration was palpable. By the climactic scene, however, his poignant revelations lacked a certain depth and truth. I don't think this can be blamed entirely on the actor.
Colleen Zink is a gorgeous woman, feisty and energetic, reminiscent of Kathleen Turner in her prime. Her Tallulah drinks continuously and snorts cocaine and declares herself "…too old, too tired." She discusses her emphysema and pronounces herself "six months away from death." Yet Zenk remains lucid and vital from beginning to end. Bankhead's vices took a toll on her beauty, but there is nothing in Zenk's performance, vocally, physically, or otherwise to even hint at dissipation. Consequently, when we must grasp the depth of her wounds to comprehend, and more importantly, to feel her drive to extract a confession from Danny, to relate to him as one wounded soul to another, we are left at sea. Perhaps this impeded Rhodes's ability to fully develop Danny. Without Tallulah's vulnerability, it's just too hard to believe Danny would expose himself in kind.
Still, there is much to enjoy in the production, not the least of which are the quotations directly lifted from Tallulah Bankhead herself. What a dame!
We Love Soaps
We Love Soaps
Friday, July 19, 2013
"Looped" at Stageworks/Hudson: Ms. Tallulah Zenk Takes Us On A Transcendent Theatrical Safari
In the pantheon of famous postmodern, sex-positive, third-wave feminist contrarians, many of whom are now genuine American icons, Tallulah Bankhead remains a paradigm of the art of performance, even a half-century after her passing.
Before Lady Gaga, Jane Fonda and The Superstars of Andy Warhol's Factory (in fact, before the television, film and radio industries even existed), Tallulah was a bearer of that particular cultural space treasured, even venerated, by those of us who champion the soap opera. That space where actors and their characters achieve singularity, and where the memories of the daily exposition of the story are inextricably entangled with the day-to-day drama of our own lives, both public and private.
Where does the guile and contrivance of the theater end, and the realness of, well, real life, begin? I am very grateful - delighted - that the star of LOOPED, Colleen Zenk, and Stageworks/Hudson, under the elegant and canny direction of Laura Margolis, conspire to liberate us from such boundaries as curtains and footlights, reinforcing the romantic, even Bankheadean conviction, "All the world's a stage."
This production of LOOPED is not creating a novel facsimile or ghoulish simulacrum of Tallulah; instead, it is an exhilarating evocation of her very nature. Zenk's performance achieves inspirational levels at regular intervals throughout the show (the remainder is merely captivating and/or sublime). They usually coincide with the moments when Colleen and Tallulah truly merge.
Zenk doesn't "turn into" Bankhead; rather, as planned, she compensates and contributes as she copies. It's a vision of the superstar that is clearer, tidier, more compelling and far more beautiful. More importantly, it has been optimized to exude the essence of that old Tallulah magic, and it does. In fact, it's right in Tallulah's wheelhouse. After all, Bankhead was known for her persistent and pervasive theatricality. For her, the whole world really was a stage; the characters, human. Zenk's performance would appear to be an apt tribute, one which blurs so many boundaries to great effect.
The choice of strategy behind the production's re-creation of Tallulah was poetic and brilliant. It was a direction their muse, Bankhead herself, would have been proud to go in. Zenk's assumption of the mantle of Tallulah Bankheadness (like Tallulah's original transformation from private Tallulah to public Tallulah) is natural and logical; emotionally pungent and visually enthralling; steadfast and unsentimental. Of course, ultimately, it was for the most part only skin deep. The real transformation came from within.
Their chosen conceptualization did in fact dictate that there would be a great deal of Zenk in this Tallulah. And it works very well, in part because it is so honest. At no time does the production insult the audience with a single pretense of verisimilitude; instead, the undeniable fact that Zenk is not Tallulah actually serves to galvanize the transformation. As she stewards us through the endless complications and contradictions of her character's character, Ms. Zenk succeeds in creating a closer and closer emotional bond with the audience, imbuing us with a marvelously tangible sense that Zenk, in a way, came closer to elucidating the real humanitarian essence of what made Tallulah 'Tallulah', than the pickled and glib Bankhead herself was always capable of.
As a Harvard College graduate and an avowed homosexual, it can't surprise you that I've been a student of Tallulah-ness for decades. Celebrity, irony, blasphemy, and so on... I had grasped the definitions in high school. But, it wasn't until the matinee last Sunday that I finally accurately experienced Tallulah's unique spiritual truth.
For those of you unfamiliar with "Looped," a gem of a play by Matthew Lombardo, it takes place over the course of a single visit to a sound studio in order to re-record, or "loop," a single sentence in Bankhead's final film. It is based on true events. There are precisely three players: the sound tech (Steven Austin Young as "Steve") the film editor (Michael Rhodes as "Danny Miller") and, of course, Ms. B. herself.
Act One is a psychological arms race, as Tallulah indulges in a battle of wills with her gentleman co-stars that escalates savagely and thus hilariously. Act Two - and we have to be careful here not to give anything away - is different in tone, richly rewarding the audience for joining in on the adventure along with Zenk. The second half of "Looped" is, to me, a testament to the power of empathy and the relevance of philosophy, as well as a toast to one woman's unique, God-given talent.
But fear not; Act Two is also very, very funny.
Although I would estimate that four-fifths of the work done on stage (as designated in the script) rests on Zenk's shoulders, Steve and Danny are still essential characters. Yet as written, it's almost impossible to maintain a fruitful balance of energy, with the electric stage presence inherent in the character of Tallulah Bankhead inescapable. Nevertheless, Young is entirely authentic, if not always 100% compelling, in the practical (and rather banal) tradesperson role.
Rhodes, on the other hand, must navigate a difficult dynamic as Danny transitions from challenging, even antagonizing, Bankhead to (spoiler alert) ultimately celebrating her. Playing the "straight man" can be disorienting and even stifling for an actor. Danny in particular is a role that can be challenging, with the character's conservative, even insipid, nature providing precious little motivation with which to shape an appropriate structural balance with the bigger-than-life personality and overwhelming charm of the lead. In most scenes, Rhodes does manage to temper exposition with entertainment. It is a challenge to sensibly maintain the boring but necessary logistical illusion of workplace bureaucracy while simultaneously conveying nearly debilitating ennui and seething frustration. Rhodes deserves praise for his success in threading that needle, as the credibility of his Danny's environment is strong enough to set up powerful contrasts which pay dividends during the emotional climax of the show.
Last Sunday afternoon, one of laughter and discovery, was heightened with a sense of history and a perfect whiff of whimsy. Zenk masterfully avoided the pitfalls of impersonation, hagiography and sentimentality, forging, as a thespian, a path to "the real" that skillfully evoked, and then transcended, historical fact. We had so much fun on character safari alongside Zenk as she exposed the triumphs and flaws of Ms. Bankhead's that I was very pleasantly surprised that by the time we were all standing and applauding, I had not only learned more about Tallulah, but also about human nature in general and even about myself. It is a gift that I will treasure for years to come.
"Looped' at Stageworks
By John Paul Keeler
For Hudson-Catskill Newspapers
Two wonderful productions running at the same time at Stageworks in Hudson
and PS21 in Chatham might wind up the
chief theatrical events of the 2013 Summer
Stage Works has mounted Matthew Lombardo's play "Looped," the story
of the famed actress Tallulah Bankhead. It stars the soap opera diva Colleen Zenk who played Barbara Ryan in "As the World Turns" for 32 years. Zenk is a marvelous actor and seems to
have captured the flamboyant Bankhead definitively. Her every gesture and pose brings Bankhead to life. Her creation is a deft mix of comedy and tragedy bringing the dysfunctional alcoholic to a level of hilarity and sympathy to an enthusiastic audience on the edge of their seats
throughout the performance.
This writer remembers as a young man working at NBC in the
early black and white days of television attending a rehearsal of the Kate Smith Show at NewYork's Center Theatre built as an Opera House. Kate was quite grand and insisted on a big
theatre and a full orchestra in the pit for her performance. Tallulah Bankhead was her guest for an
8 minute skit for the two divas. Kate in an imperious way tried to direct Tallulah urging her to be
more expressive. Now Miss Bankhead was rather like Ethel Merman and they both could be heard
when they opened up their voices as far as Staten Island. Tallulah declaimed "Listen you fat F... don't direct me I have forgotten more about acting than you will ever know." Kate screamed and cried and rushed off stage with her comforting manager Ted Collins. But Bankhead's coup du
Theatre came as she placed herself center stage before the guests at the rehearsal and the orchestra musicians in the pit, and with a wide grin and a roll of the eyes that said everything. The musicians pounded their bows on their instruments in their delight and the guests cried Brava as Tallulah left the stage in triumph. After about 15 minutes in true movie and show biz tradition,
the two stars returned all smiles and finished the rehearsal.
The playwright Matthew Lombardo threaded his play with side splitting and sad Bankhead one liners. The setting of the play is a recording studio in Los Angeles where a retake of a single line from a Bankhead movie is to be recorded. The technician Steve played with relish by Steven Austin Young makes a grumpy entrance fearing the difficulties ahead. Danny Miller the director, played by Michael Rhodes, arrives with similar anxieties. Colleen Zenk makes a Bankhead grand entrance and there is a sweeping humor with building tension to the end of the second act.
How Zenk manages the multiple flubs at the mike for the single line she can't remember with myriad comedic looks and vocal outbursts is quite amazing. The second act opens with Bankhead supposedly lost. She finally arrives and suddenly records her one line perfectly but in the excitement the recording machine is not working. But Tallulah with suave acting repeats it perfectly. From the vagaries
of her dysfunctional life Tallulah senses emotional trouble in the Director's life and badgers him into weepingly expressing his hidden life. Michael Rhodes rises to splendid acting in Danny's near breakdown. Tallulah show tenderness to Danny and advises him to be himself just as she is six months before what she calls her death sentence. Danny admits that he has been a Bankhead groupie and as Miss Bankhead makes her exit she throws him the keys to her apartrilent backing out like Tosca after killing Scarpia, but like Mae West in her famous "come up and see me sometime", leaves her audience and Danny Rhodes and the House comes down.
The fine direction of Laura Margolis is superb. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday Matinee at 2 p.m. through July.