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THEATER REVIEW Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-06-21

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Playwright: Jessica Sherr. At: Velvet Fox Productions at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: $24-$34. Runs through: July 2

It was a blunder to be remembered throughout cinema history. On the night of the 1939 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards presentations, the evening edition of the Los Angeles Times published the names of the winners in defiance of the embargo prohibiting revelation thereof until after the ceremonies.

Nominees and guests had already arrived at the Cocoanut Grove auditorium, some remaining to stoically face their imminent defeat, but Bette Davis shrugged off social protocol and left. In Jessica Sherr's solo show, we discover our rebellious heroine at home, preparing for the next morning's film shoot, interrupted by telephone calls from the awards gala, where her absence has been noted by friends, colleagues—oh, and her mother.

The conflation of actors with their roles is a romantic fancy often indulged by audiences laboring under the myth of the actor's true character gradually succumbing to the deception inherent in that trade. The onscreen evolution of the woman born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts reversed the formula, Bette Davis' propensity for playing female survivors hard of head and heart, rather than the more sympathetic supplicants, arose from her own temperament and convictions. As she regales us—frequently accompanied by speeches and music drawn from her films—with recollections of the events leading her to this pivotal moment, we become aware of her devotion to her craft, and her determination to forge her own path, whatever the risk. Such dedication inevitably met with mixed responses, but our narrator does nor flinch from acquainting us with advocates and adversaries alike.

Sherr's performance shuns all traces of camp caricature to encompass a flinty New England accent, changes of costume incorporating accessories belonging to the real-life Davis and facial replication mirroring her iconic persona so accurately as to totally eclipse the playbill photograph of Sherr as herself. A complete summary of Davis' long career could span several evenings—did I mention her four husbands, several high-profile lovers and well-publicized feuds with co-workers? However, this tantalizing glimpse into the early years of the celebrated artist who would have rather been an actress than a star, ends after just more than an hour—not in a defeated "What a dump!" but in a triumphant cry of "I'm bigger than the big screen! Fasten your seats belts!" —leaving us wanting more.


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