“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
The 1950 American movie classic All About Eve gets a clever Elizabethan makeover in UNSEX’d, a ribald comedy that between the laughs, explores the dark side of ageism.
Just off a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Wilbur Hussey is preparing for the Bard’s newest play, Macbeth. Realizing he is in a losing battle with his advancing age, Wilburn conjures a young apprentice in the hopes that Shakespeare will cast his new protégé in some of the smaller women’s roles, leaving the meatier female roles for him. Not surprisingly, the newcomer quickly supplants the Wilbur on stage, and in the hearts of the playwright and some of his wealthy patrons.
The story of UNSEX’d, which takes its name from the fact that during Elizabethan times women were prohibited from being on stage and their roles played by young men, is as obvious as Bette Davis’ distinctive eyes. What ultimately makes this overwrought story work though comes from the mash-up of styles from playwrights Jay Whitehead and Daniel Jude.
Chief among the playwright’s clever twists is the use of Elizabethan-type language that is interspersed with modern references and dialogue. Between the contemporary vulgarities, even the Material Girl gets a mention between sips from a plastic water bottle. While it might all seem a little incongruous to its setting, these present-day nods work well inside a story that will also have you thinking of a smuttier Moulin Rouge (minus all the love songs).
Given its well-worn story, UNSEX’d does stall a bit midway, as the two actors jostle for position. Fortunately that lull only lasts for a short time before Whitehead and Jude amp up the volume towards its obvious conclusion.
Helping to make it all work are terrific performances from Whitehead, who steps from behind his manuscript to play Wilburn, and Adam Beauchesne as the young protégé Humphrey Hughes.
Surprisingly there is little of Bette Davis in Whitehead’s performance, instead he seems to be channeling an even more ridiculous version of Mr Humphries from the British television comedy, Are You Being Served. As Hughes, Beauchesne effectively moves Hughes from innocent ingénue to scheming leading lady and goes for big laughs each time he must “man up”. Together the duo work well off each other, with near perfect comedic timing, and no doubt a testament to having done the show together for a number of years now.
David Barrus gives both the set and costumes an authentic, yet slightly off-kilter view of Elizabethan England, and Aaron Collier’s sound design is inspired, especially as it underscores the many winks to Macbeth.
The best thing about UNSEX’d is that it works on multiple levels: drag aficionados will appreciate it as much as Shakespeare and theatre fans. As for its more serious themes, by laughing at the artifice of youth we are able to recognize its folly. And even as it might not change the rampant ageism that continues to be reinforced by Hollywood, it at least reminds us that we’re all getting a little bit older.
UNSEX’d by Jay Whitehead and Daniel Jude. Directed by Richie Wilcox. A the frank theatre presentation of a Theatre Outré production. On stage at the PAL Studio Theatre (581 Cardero St, Vancouver) until December 5. Visit http://thefranktheatre.com for tickets and information.