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Sex is a Broadway hit from 1926.

Shaw Festival

  • Title: Sex
  • Written by: Mae West
  • Director: Peter Hinton-Davis
  • Actors: Diana Donnelly, Kristopher Bowman, Fiona Byrne
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to October 13

rating

4 out of 4 stars

The memory of Mae West as a film star is fading, her trademark wit scattered like ashes over the Internet as unsourced one-liners.

But director Peter Hinton-Davis’s smart and unsettling new production of an early play of West’s at the Shaw Festival suggests there may still be life in the old girl yet.

Sex, a 1926 Broadway hit largely remembered for culminating in West spending a week in jail on obscenity charges, centres around Montreal sex worker Margy LaMont (Diana Donnelly).

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It follows her on a journey to Trinidad and New England that is, at different moments, an escape from danger, a business trip and a romantic adventure.

Stratford and Shaw festivals 2019 guide: What to see and where to eat and drink

Sex’s first act paints a colourful picture of the red-light district of Montreal in the 1920s, when it was a major port town and sin city of the North for Americans. Its status as a place of transience is embedded in Eo Sharp’s set design, built entirely out of shabby suitcases that open to reveal phonographs, wardrobes or drink cabinets.

Margy lives with a gigolo named Rocky (Kristopher Bowman), who is not quite her boyfriend and not quite her pimp. Their relationship is banter and threats – and it’s unclear who has the upper hand.

While Margy is out one night with a lover/client, British sailor Lieutenant Gregg (André Sills), Rocky returns home with a vacationing American society lady named Clara (Fiona Byrne) – who he plies with drink and drugs until she collapses and he can slip away with her jewellery.

This early scene is dark and troubling, and staged as such with intimacy/fight director Siobhan Richardson helping the actors give unnerving performances that straddle that slash. Bowman channels a young Brando, while Byrne is heartbreakingly lost and lustful, a trapped woman walking into a bigger trap.

When Margy comes back, she stumbles upon Clara and decides to save her life – an action that leads to trouble with both Rocky and the police.

And so, Margy takes Lieutenant Gregg’s suggestion to “follow the fleet” to Trinidad, or a hot, hazy, music-filled dream of it anyway. The first scene in this second location opens with an actor popping out of a giant can of Fry’s Pure Breakfast Cocoa to sing alongside a Caribbean drag queen and king.

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Diana Donnelly adds some French flavour to the Montreal scenes by adding joual gems to West’s underworld argot.

Shaw Festival

Margy, now flush on sailor’s wages and in a gorgeous white wrap, sings next, before a wild dance party erupts amid a flurry of gold and brown balloons that pop violently under boat shoes and high heels. It’s as if we’ve suddenly stumbled into a Kander and Ebb musical, deliriously staged (and disorientingly lit by Bonnie Beecher).

In Trinidad, Margy is wooed by young American aristocrat Jimmy Stanton (Julia Course), who seems to have no questions about her past.

Can a prostitute go straight and marry a decent man? The second half of West’s play is at first pure melodrama, and Hinton-Davis (formerly Hinton) stages it as such under lights cut by overhead ceiling fans to make everything flicker like an old movie.

But when the play’s location shifts again to the Stanton household in New England, all bets are off – as styles and characters blur in a plantation owner’s house that has blood stains on the floor and evidence tags on the furniture.

This is a strong director’s take, but the performances are always up-close and human, not big screen and blousy. The bilingual Donnelly and Katherine Gauthier, playing a sex-worker organizer, add true French flavour to the Montreal scenes interspersing joual gems into West’s unusual underworld argot.

Donnelly has chemistry with all Margy’s men, but also with Byrne’s Clara – the prostitute and unhappy upper-class woman circling each other as if looking into a mirror, fascinated and appalled.

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Jonathan Tan is sweet and sad as Margy’s Montreal neighbour Agnes, his body in that part also a reminder that trans women of colour are particularly vulnerable when it comes to sex work. Meanwhile, Course writhes as young Jimmy in constant panic over his body and his privilege.

There have been a few small productions of Sex since the script was dug out of the Library of Congress and published in the 1990s, but the Shaw Festival’s is the first major one.

On the page, and through our preconceptions of West, the play can read as campy or caricatured or just plain flat, but Hinton takes it very seriously here and believes that the writer is providing artful insight into the realms she depicts. He finds musicality in West’s dialogue and layers of meaning in her story.

Most of all, he looks beyond the playwright as sex symbol – to see her exploring sex as a symbol. Sex, Hinton-Davis reminds us as the cast enters as if for a police line-up, is a crime. It can be a commodity, or the only thing that you can’t buy. It is power, it is vulnerability, a way to run away, or the only time we’re truly where we are. It’s love, and it’s terror.

A sudden ending being the only stumble, Hinton-Davis’s otherwise sumptuous production makes a case for West as a fascinating theatrical halfway point between Wilde and Williams, not a celebrity oddity that only precedes them on a bookshelf full of plays.

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