During the last 12 years of her life, Mae West spent mornings answering fan mail and afternoons trying on hats. An Oscar-nominated actress as well as a burlesque queen, West's self-indulgence is the stuff of legend. "It's better to be looked over than to be overlooked," is one of her most repeated witticisms. Park Square Theatre and director Joel Sass are obliging the star's favorite habits with their production of Dirty Blonde by Claudia Shear. "It's a love letter to Mae West," says Jodi Kellogg before rehearsal last week. Kellogg does double duty in the show, which begins previews on July 13 and opens July 17. As Jo, she searches for love and acceptance in present-day New York. As West, she navigates through facades, finding the true person beneath the flamboyant hats. But if Kellogg is daunted by the task of recreating a legend, her fascination with the actress/playwright/wiseass leaves little room for nerves. Already to her credit: Her impression of West's lilting Brooklynese is spot-on.
Dirty Blonde follows West's life from her vaudeville days to her success as a playwright, her fame in Hollywood, and above all, her self-creation. West took great pains to engineer her public image with razor-sharp wit, vigorous self-interest, and oodles of pearls. She was the undisputed queen of the double entendre; her sentences dripped with innuendo as often as her gowns dripped with feathers. "They're glorious," says Kellogg of her costumes, designed by Rich Hamson. "Mae's figure is sewn into the dresses. I feel like a drag queen."
Shear has interlaced West's story with a quirky romantic comedy. Two devotees, Jo and Charlie, meet at the actress's grave on her birthday. Because Charlie's passion for the icon rivals her own, Jo assumes that he's gay. She lets down her guard, and they're off on a madcap affair. "These are lonely, broken people," says Kellogg, "trying to capture the uncompromising attitude of a woman constantly in pursuit of what she wanted." After all, this was the woman who wrote a play about drag queens in 1927 (a scene in Dirty Blonde shows the queens outfitting West). This was the woman who pulled the oops-my-breast-popped-out stunt 75 years before Janet Jackson. This was also a woman who spent much of her life unhappy, who was bad-mouthed by the press, and who was repeatedly rumored to be a man. But Kellogg makes it clear that the play remains buoyant. "Mae never allowed the pain to take her over. Whenever she failed, she knew it, and she knew how to turn failure into lasting success." For Jo and Charlie, that success includes the ability to fully become oneself, "like a dress she slipped into," and finally embrace oneself for it. Who wouldn't want to feel like a drag queen?