Dallas — Morgana Shaw, costumed like a high-class bag lady and wearing the persona of Bette Davis at the end of her career, walks onto the compact arena stage at Margo Jones Theatre. She rolls her enormous eyes beneath the frumpy white wig, shrugs pragmatically and addresses the audience: “What a dump, right?” Everybody laughs and applauds this clearly honest and totally intriguing woman standing in the center of the blue spotlight.
Shaw has owned the role of Bette Davis in Camilla Carr’s All About Bette: An Interlude with Bette Davis since 2006 when Jac Alder directed the one-woman show at Theatre Three’s basement theater. They took the show to the Spoleto Festival in 2008, where the play and the star garnered praise. This time around, Starlight Entertainment, a production company owned by Michael A. Jenkins, former president of Dallas Summer Musicals, produces the show. This weekend it’s at the Margo Jones in Fair Park—putting Jenkins back in his home turf—and will be followed by performances in August at Stage West in Fort Worth and the Stone Cottage in Addison.
Directed with dramatic pacing by Ryan Matthieu Smith, the evening crackles with the sardonic humor and unapologetic ambition of its star.
Right off the bat, Bette dismisses her legendary rivalry with contemporary Hollywood Golden Age star Joan Crawford, the subject of FX TV’s recent hit series Feud. Bette refers to Crawford’s “tedious” preoccupation with undermining any role Bette might want. She makes it clear that she deserved lead actress billing (and eventually an Oscar) in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, the camp classic in which the two worked together. While admitting to her own romantic pitfalls, she confides that Crawford was notably easy to seduce, followed by a trademark catty one-liner. Ladies!
Bette also acknowledges that Hollywood studios regularly exploited all actresses, from the first film and fast-forward into the “women of a certain age” roles. Bette sides with all her female colleagues when it comes to confronting the male dominated studio system. “If you want a thing well done, get a couple of old broads to do it,” she declares.
In the intimacy of the Margo Jones space, Shaw is stunningly effective, shaking as she recalls her recovery from a stroke, and her hatred of mirrors, which she banished from her dressing rooms. Joking about wearing “vintage Edith Head” designs, she tells of looking “ravaged” after her collapse from overwork, and having to learn to talk and use a fork again.
Bette battled the big guys to get the right to work in films outside her major studio of Warner Brothers, and only half-jokingly refers to herself as the “fifth Warner brother” because her films earned so much money for the company. The numbers alone attest to Davis’ amazing energy and work ethic. With more than 100 films, TV and theater roles, she was nominated for ten Best Actress Academy Awards, won two, and was the first female president of the Academy. She tells us she nicknamed the award “Oscar” for the middle name of a previous husband. There’s a wacky honor.
Midway through the first act, Shaw’s Bette pulls her dark velvet coat close to her and begins to talk about her four husbands, and how social norms of the time drove her to marry injudiciously. “I married people I shouldn’t have gone to dinner with,” she says, laughing and sighing at once.
Then the lights dim and Shaw steps behind a huge trunk at the rear of a nearly bare stage. She emerges seconds later transformed from an old woman in a wig and vintage finery to a gorgeous girl with a heavy mane of red hair dressed in a russet taffeta gown, her eyes and hair and dress all shining in the light. Voila! Bette is here in her heyday. She lights a cigarette and exudes glamour.
From here on, we get the inside story on how Bette took on character roles in which “I had to make myself ugly.” She disses today’s actresses who only want ingénue roles and starve themselves into illness to look thin and young. Looking heavenward, Shaw lifts her arms and summons Bette’s own heroines, women like Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and others. These personal stories, threaded throughout the show, add spice and surprise to the evening.
Whether recalling a British director or a German actress, Shaw slips quickly and convincingly into an appropriate accent and tone. She even sings a ballad called “Loneliness” in a sultry whiskey tenor.
Bette’s most touching stories are when she recalls her ever-optimistic mother’s many sacrifices to see that she and her sister had a solid start in the world when they were abandoned by their father as preschoolers. This mother-daughter story has sad consequences, and Shaw’s Bette lays it bare, roaming the stage restlessly and throwing her hair into her hands.
The show takes us from Bette’s beginning to end, literally, and runs almost two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Shaw’s Bette gives us a sense of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and a bright glimpse of one of the toughest and most talented actresses that made it shine.
We exit the theater with a little stardust settling in our memories.
» All About Bette also runs Aug. 11-12 at Stage West in Fort Worth; and Aug. 18-26 at the Stone Cottage in Addison. Get details and buy tickets here.