Edith Head at Actors Theatre Will Entertain Even the Fashion Unconscious

We were, as we do most Saturday nights, dressing for theater.

"Why does this shirt look so nice on the hanger," I asked my spouse, "and so dumpy on me?"

"I don't know," he replied, pointing to my head. "But you need a haircut. Those bangs make you look like Claudette Colbert."

And then we went to the Herberger to watch the opening-night performance of A Conversation with Edith Head, Actors Theatre's one-woman show about the world's most famous Hollywood costume designer. As Edith made her entrance from the back of the theater, she stopped at my aisle seat and complimented me on my shirt. Then she climbed onto the stage and, within minutes, was talking about what a bitch Claudette Colbert had been when they worked together at Paramount. And my spouse and I looked at one another, as Cornelia Otis Skinner once wrote, "with a wild surmise."

Edith eventually talked about Cornelia Otis Skinner, too. And Bette Davis, and Audrey Hepburn ("She was awful, with that long, skinny neck!"), and Hedy Lamarr (who ate constantly, even during fittings), and Bing Crosby (who hated clothes that made him look silly). She wasn't actually Edith Head, of course. Head died in 1981, the same year in which this play takes place; in this pleasant, quietly entertaining homage to Head, she's portrayed by Susan Claassen, who co-wrote the play with Head's biographer, Paddy Calisto. Claassen bears a striking resemblance to the renowned designer, a fact that piqued the actress's interest and led her to create this production, which she appears to have directed herself — there's no director's credit in the playbill.

The conceit of the performance is that the audience is at a personal appearance by Edith Head, the sort of "an evening with" event that Hollywood publicist John Springer was known for in the 1970s. Head talks about her life in Hollywood, designing looks for nearly every big-deal movie star in more than 1,100 films. She prompts the audience with trivia questions and strikes poses (which, presumably, Edith Head was known for), placing a manicured hand on a hip she repeatedly juts out into the audience. Her banter is helped along by Stuart Moulton, a toady with a clipboard who plays host to Miss Head, offering her questions and occasionally correcting her recollections about herself.

Claassen, whose day job is as artistic director of Tucson's Invisible Theater, moved effortlessly from scripted storytelling to ad libs aimed at her audience. The poor slob a few rows ahead of me who came to the theater in shorts and rubber deck shoes became the butt of an ongoing joke about slovenliness — a joke that should have fallen flat after the third or fourth reference, but which Claassen kept fresh and funny throughout the performance. (At one point, she stopped in the middle of a speech about Mae West and pointed to the shorts-wearing fellow, a professor from ASU. "Did you come here directly from camping, dear?" Claassen inquired.)

This is a show built for people like me, who grew up obsessing on the Late Late Show and who therefore already know most of the stories Claassen-as-Head is there to tell. Which got me to thinking: Who else would care that Dorothy Lamour wore falsies or that Bob Hope would wear anything so long as it got him a laugh? If you're not interested in the evolution of the gown Elizabeth Taylor wore in A Place in the Sun or how Edith Head hid Barbara Stanwyck's low waist and flat fanny, will this show entertain you?

It will. And if you're willing to be harangued for being a slob, show up in shorts.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela