Conversation With Edith Head Review – A Hollywood Icon’s Bravura Performance

Susan Classon as Edith Head at the Pear Theatre

A consummate actor, hailing from Tuscon’s Invisible Theatre, Susan Claassen is Edith Head,Channeling Head’s physical, emotional and professional persona, in a powerful performance, Claassen induced a reverse Einstein space-time warp,virtually.  An audience member,post-performance, share her respect for the iconic Hollywood costumer designer’s life work, believing she had seen the living Edith Head interviewed – despite mention of a 1901 birthdate. The illusion of realism, heightened by a dead-panned interviewer’s technique and periodic Pirandello forays into the audience for questions, was so strong that it transcended mention of the principal’s 1901 birthdate. The performance is stimulated by interview questions that prompt Ms. Head to point to inscribed photos of Hollywood stars and tell the story of their interaction. The conversation captures Head as a senior figure, approaching her last film project, reprising her past.

Susan Claassen as Edith Head

Conversation” lives up to its advertisement as an“… evening of wit, wisdom, and a Whisper of Gossip”  As she avers, “There’s nothing like a row of Oscars (8 from 34 nominations) for putting the fear of God into an actress who thinks she knows everything about dress designing.” Learn the story behind Dorothy Lamour’s bodice, Betty Davis’s off shoulder gown etc.  Claassen wrote and now performs an evocation of Hollywood’s studio era that is a not to be missed experience. The intricacies of camouflaging (her word, repeated more than once) awkward features, for example Barbara Stanwyck’s derriere, provides insight into costumer’s role in the motion picture industry: a battle to transform an actual body into an idealized image. 

Claassen delves deeply into Head’s persona in this concentrated distillation of her life, well beyond the take in a late-night interview with the actual person. For example, Hedy Lamar appearance on the Dick Cavett Show, was shown in Bombshell, a documentary on the sex symbol and inventor, who, not surprisingly Edith Head dressed. Head entered the “industry” in its early decades, before the narrowing of gender participation that is typically concomitant with a field’s success,whether motion pictures or genetics.  In the 1920’s, Hollywood was more open to female talent, not only in costume design but in writing and directing, than it has been until quite recently. 

The classic Hollywood studio been likened to a“university’ in sociologist Reuel Denney’s The Astonished Muse, a study of early television characterized by live performances, before the AMPEX videotape invention shifted the medium away from the stage, towards film.  Classic Hollywood’s tail end paralleled the rise of live television, instantiated in the film My Favorite Year, through an Errol Flynn like character experiencing a panic attack upon learning that wha the does on camera is instantly transmitted. There is no second take! 

A Claassen play is a study in occupational sociology and sociology of work, including the key phase of “Getting a Job.”  A newspaper advertisement from a studio seeking a neophyte designer caught the attention of a California High School French Teacher, doubling as an art teacher, due to the connection assumed by school authority figures between France and Art. Thrust into the position without previous experience or training, Head winged it. Taking art courses to catch up,she found she enjoyed it more than foreign language teaching.  

In contrast to the classic sociological tale of job information, arriving through a relatively distant contact,this is a tale of “Guangshi” or influence. Whether eager and naive or strategic and oblivious, Head constructed a portfolio including friends’ artwork and designs to bring to the interview. She also used the advantage of two of her students being related to a studio executive, to get a preference for the position. Having attained a position, Head proved adept at learning on the job from her supervisor and received assignments of her own to costume B westerns at Paramount and then moved on to higher value properties.

Conversation” is an exception to the usual rule of Pear’s ensemble locally sourced talent, performing contemporary and classic plays. After a brief run, Pear diverts to cabaret, a subset of its talent and then to a thought experiment exploring the effects of mysterious loss of half the world’s population; Jeffrey Lo’s Spending the End of the World on OKCUpid.

Photos: Courtesy of Pear Theatre

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