Review: A Conversation with Edith Head (Invisible Theatre / Buddies in Bad Times)

A Conversation with Edith Head brings the famous Hollywood designer to life at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times

Edith Head was one of the most prolific designers in midcentury Hollywood: her costumes appear in over a thousand films, and on several of the biggest stars of the era–Grace Kelly, Bette Davis, Natalie Wood, Barbara Stanwyck, and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor–who requested her by name. Over her 54-year career, she pinned, sketched, fitted and darted non-stop: ten hours a day, six days a week. For her efforts, she won more Academy Awards (eight) than any other woman to date, and made both friends and enemies among the Hollywood in-crowd.

She died in 1981, but for the last several years, Susan Claassen has been bringing her back to life in a one-woman tribute show, A Conversation with Edith Head, and by grace of CAFTCAD, Ms. Claassen has brought this production–which sold out at Edinburgh, broke records in New York, and has played for ages in cities all over the world–to Buddies in Bad Times.

Surrounded by dress forms, sketches, framed photographs and several Oscars, Claassen presents Head towards the end of her life: fragile, forgetful, but as proud and wry as ever. With the assistance of questions from the audience (and several scripted “ringers” from a co-host), she walks us back through fifty years of Hollywood, always following her own advice: accentuating the positive, and eliminating the negative. Head lingers cheerfully over designs which weren’t entirely her own, including several which belong to other designers entirely; when called out, she reacts with fury and half-baked excuses. But this brittleness and unreliability serve to buttress her character in other ways: as Head explains, she’s one of the last survivors of the studio system. DeMille got credit for everything his underlings did; so did Hitchcock; and why should little bespectacled Edie Head be any different?

My one objection to the show is that, if anything, it may be a little over-rehearsed. Claassen deserves full and complete credit for taking an unusual premise–the unfinished autobiography of a minor celebrity, and a woman who many people, in life, found rather distasteful–and bringing this character to the world. But after several years of blockbuster performances, there are a few moments in this production where the usual give-and-take of comic performance begins to show through: moments where Head leans in as if to say “brace yourselves, boys: the punchline’s coming”.

However, these brief moments aside, Claassen’s performance is note-perfect–and her special expertise in marrying Head’s contradictions into a remarkably pleasing whole is especially noteworthy. Unreliable characters are always a tricky business; making them pleasant and trustworthy is an art; making them interesting is a trial. But Claassen pulls it off, and the end result is a performance which leaves you feeling more worldly, wiser and perhaps a few inches taller from just having spent 90 minutes in the company of such a truly exceptional woman.

Details

  • A Conversation with Edith Head plays through January 19th, 2014 at the Buddies in Bad Times Cabaret (12 Alexander St.)
  • Shows run nightly at 8 PM, with a 2:30 PM matinee on the 19th.
  • Tickets are $40, with $35 concession tickets for certain groups. See website for details.
  • Tickets may be purchased online or from the Buddies in Bad Times box office.
  • Arrive early; this show’s general admission, and it will sell out.