By Nick Pilgrim
What are the odds?
Within the space of a week, I got the chance to review several shows which paid homage to two of America’s leading female entertainment legends.
Last Saturday I had the privilege of seeing Judy – Australia – 1964, detailing Judy Garland’s infamous ten-day tour of Australia and the media fallout that resulted from it. Then on Wednesday night I enjoyed Looped, a three-hander about Tallulah Bankhead, and her slow decline as the former toast of Broadway.
Despite their immense talent, both women shared many unfortunate similarities. Chronic substance abuse, troubled family backgrounds, and public bouts of self-destruction eventually brought their respective careers unstuck. For many years, Bankhead headlined hit after hit along the Great White Way. Eventually though, her party girl lifestyle, cavalier pill-popping and erratic behaviour, caught up.
One episode in Florida, would haunt the actress for the remainder of her life. Bankhead was hired to play Blanche DuBois in a regional production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire at the Coconut Grove.
There was a certain irony to this casting.
Years earlier, the role had reputedly been written for her by its author. Turning it down outright, she claimed that viewers would be unable to separate his protagonist’s aging alcoholic Southern Belle from her own notorious celebrity. (Much to Bankhead’s deep regret, DuBois quickly became one of the greatest parts ever written for a character actress.)
When this rare opportunity finally did arise, whether unnerved by vanity or self-doubt, on opening night she proceeded to camp it up for fans instead.
Looped takes place at the twilight of her career. Riding on the coattails of films like Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, Lady In A Cage, and Straight Jacket, Bankhead’s final motion picture was a ‘hagsploitation’ quickie called Die! Die! My Darling!
Like Judy – Australia – 1964, Looped is also set within a very specific time frame but with one significant difference. Where Garland’s collapse was a public free for all in front of thousands, Looped plays out behind closed doors.
The show’s title also draws on the following motion picture technical term:
More commonly known as dubbing, a film actor listens to the cue track while watching the same scene over and over. They will rehearse the line so that it matches the wording and lip movements, then record what was practiced in time to achieve the end result.
When the opportunity to review Looped materialised, I jumped at the chance. Knowing the late Valerie Harper (from the seventies’ sitcom, Rhoda) had helmed its original U.S. run, I was curious to see this high concept piece for myself.
Based on an actual post-production dubbing session, Bankhead is reputed to have taken eight hours to record a single line of dialogue. (In addition to the final product, forty-five minutes of raw audio outtakes capture Bankhead’s frustrations with herself and the technical crew full force.) This taped evidence forms both the impetus and inspiration for Looped, providing a fascinating glimpse into Bankhead’s fading star appeal and increasingly chaotic private life. Divided into two fifty-minute parts, Looped is a cat-and-mouse marathon between Bankhead and the lamenting film editor forced to see the project through.
Peppered with punchy jokes and rapid-fire dialogue, Matthew Lombardo’s fly-on-the-wall script seems designed with a very specific demographic in mind. No detail is left to chance, and slowly unpeeling itself like a brilliant onion, makes for a highly satisfying experience.
Bringing Bankhead’s brand of caustic wit to fully realised life, Kadey McIntosh is a revelation. She goes from being a human hurricane all over the store in act one to quiet regret in act two. This dramatic tonal shift makes you want to slap Bankhead in the first instance, before hugging her by lights out.
As Danny Miller, Jonathan Best is the solid anchor vital to McIntosh’s ship lost at sea. At first, I was worried that his presence would become Bud Abbott’s straight man to Lou Costello’s “Who’s On First?” Short of giving anything else away, Best’s sensitively rendered performance gently evolves into so much more.
Never once feeling false or scripted, McIntosh and Best share legitimate on-stage chemistry. Raw, real, and in the moment, I was surprised and delighted to learn the pair had headlined HTC’s production of Barefoot In The Park in November last year. Their absolute mutual trust, especially playing roles which could not be more contrasting to Neil Simon’s Paul and Corie Bratter, showcases this pair’s tremendous range.
McIntosh and Best share two sides of the one dynamic coin. In Tallulah, Danny gains release and from Miller, Bankhead finds redemption.
Lee Cook (who also plays the cameo role of Steve) directs Looped with pinpoint precision and joyful flair. Credited for the show’s design, lighting, and sound, one will clearly sense how much bringing this very special tale to life means to Cook.
His production also takes a huge, calculated risk in the show’s unconventional choice of venue.
Her is a trendy side street cocktail lounge located in Windsor. Its smart speakeasy vibe makes for an exclusive and immersive experience. Using such a non-traditional space with stage construction by Jason Wehbe, gives Looped an exciting and unexpected edge. (Whether a special moment that broke the fourth wall during interval on opening night is continued for the rest of the season, remains to be seen.)
Fans of classic movie fare such as The Women and All About Eve, to more recent outings like Death Becomes Her, Mrs Parker & The Vicious Circle, Postcards From The Edge, Saving Mr Banks, and the television mini-series, Feud, will swoon over Looped.
Presented by Dauntless Theatre, this is chamber playtime at its best. Don’t miss out.