Unlike the many flash-in-the-pan celebrities of our digital age who are world famous for fifteen minutes and then fade into oblivion, silent-film star Clara Bow achieved lasting recognition as Hollywood’s original “It Girl” of the Flapper era. Though her name and success live on in history and the movies, her active career was short-lived, despite having attained undisputed status as the leading sex symbol and a top box-office draw of the Roaring Twenties. With a total of 46 silent films to her credit and eleven “talkies” after the motion picture industry switched to sound, Bow, suffering from the pressures of living a frenetic life in the public eye and the mental illness that had also plagued her mother, retired from acting in 1933, while still in her twenties. Her proverbial fifteen minutes were up.
THE IT GIRL, Simpatico Theatre Project’s world-premiere piece by Amanda Schoonover (who stars as Bow), Brenna Geffers (who directs), and Anthony Crosby (an emerging talent in Philadelphia), is the opening production at The Drake, Philadelphia’s newest theater venue (which, coincidentally, is housed in an Art Deco building that was constructed in 1928-29, at the height of Bow’s fame). The original work is a visually authentic, amusing, and then heartbreaking fictionalized bio-play about Bow, her era, and the commodification and disposability of women throughout time—the pop-culture phenomenon of placing hot young actresses in the spotlight, constantly demanding they outdo themselves both on and off set to provide fodder for fan magazines and gossip columnists, only to forget them when the next sensational new starlet comes along.
Under Geffers’ precise direction and split-second timing, Schoonover fully inhabits the role of Bow. It is a physically and emotionally demanding performance that not only displays her command of the emotive style of silent acting of the ‘20s, but also captures the exhilaration, stress, loneliness, and pain felt by the woman behind the scenes with poignancy and empathy. The artistic team assists in transporting the audience to Bow’s time, with period-style set and props (by Allen Radway), projections and music (sound/projection design by Geffers), costumes (Courtney Boches), dance and movement (with K.O. DelMarcelle and Peter Andrew Danzig/Theatrical Trainer serving as consultants), and masterful lighting (Maria Shaplin) that recreates the effects of both the spotlights and flashbulbs that enveloped the ephemeral star.
But THE IT GIRL is not strictly a solo piece about an historic Hollywood icon. The story of Bow is seen through a contemporary feminist lens that considers the static and feedback a woman gets when she speaks, only to have her voice silenced and her body exposed and exploited. Along with Schoonover, Crosby is a constant presence on stage as the “Assistant to Miss Bow”–the ubiquitous man who takes charge and calls all the shots, against whom she must fight to break free, only to feel the need to apologize–as if she were the one at fault.
Like Clara Bow’s life and career, the 60-minute show is short, intense, and cautionary.
[The Theatre at The Drake, 1512 Spruce Street (enter on Hicks Street)] January 20-February 8, 2016; simpaticotheatre.org.