Head's Up

In her new show at Invisible Theatre, Susan Claassen successfully creates a complicated, balanced, living character.

Susan Claassen gives great Head. That's Edith Head, the famed costume designer Claassen portrays in Sketches: Edith Head's Hollywood. The smartly dressed play is enjoying its premiere run at Invisible Theatre.

Head's six-decade, thousand-film career included eight Oscars (for movies including All About Eve and The Sting), 35 Oscar nominations and a few close friendships with the stars she dressed.

According to this play, co-written by Claassen, Head biographer Paddy Calistro and director Carol Calkins, Head thought of herself as a person always standing behind someone, making movie stars look glamorous while carefully avoiding glamour herself. Yet Head became a celebrity in her own right. She had her own look--tailored suits, thick dark glasses, a bun-and-bangs hairdo that was both severe and girlish. She had her own reputation, as a multiple Academy Award nominee and winner. And she became fashion guru to Middle American women with her newspaper columns, books and TV appearances.

Yet she wasn't the sort of flamboyant, larger-than-life figure who usually serves as fodder for biographical shows (Barrymore, Callas, Mae West). Edith Head prided herself on her diplomacy, her ability to blend in, her hard work. She was about as ordinary as you can be in Hollywood.

Even so, you could nudge a few revelations in Sketches just a bit out of context and come away with quite a different impression. Take away her discretion, loyalty and subtle wit, and you get hints of a fraud who got her first studio job on the strength of a borrowed portfolio, a Machiavellian manipulator and opportunist (she converted from Judaism to Catholicism in an odd effort to fit into an industry governed mainly by Jewish men), an egotistical grudge-nurser resentful over failing to win Oscars for The Emperor Waltz and To Catch a Thief, a fame-seeker who sometimes accepted credit for other people's designs, a heartless fashion maven who would shame badly dressed women on national television.

(I dimly recall from my childhood a couple of Head's brutal interactions with women in the audience of Art Linkletter's House Party, and being appalled that one could say such embarrassing things about people in public. Perhaps Head's example is what led me to become a critic.)

The fact that you come away from Sketches with an entirely sympathetic attitude toward Head is a tribute to the strength of the designer's character and the finesse of Susan Claassen and her script.

Claassen is a performer of many fine qualities, although finesse may not be the first that comes to mind. She established herself here in the 1970s with a style, particularly in comedy, propelled by a broad, aggressive, sometimes vaguely sinister exuberance. Like the old Hollywood celebrities before acting began to resemble the practice of chameleons, Claassen carried her own persona from role to role, as have such other local mainstream stage favorites over the past quarter century as Benjamin Stewart, Wendy Lehr, Ken Ruta and, more recently, James Mitchell Gooden. (The alternative theater has its own roster, headed by Suzi List.)

Claassen hasn't necessarily mellowed over the years; evidence may be heard in her greetings on the Invisible Theatre answering machine, which raise the art of the carnival barker to sophisticated heights. But in Sketches, gone is the awareness that we're watching Susan Claassen perform. We're watching Edith Head reminisce in her bungalow on the Universal lot in 1981, a few weeks before her death.

This is not a matter of mere impersonation. Claassen does nail the Head voice and manner, but Rich Little probably could, too. The difference is that Claassen is going far beneath the mannerisms to create a complicated, balanced, living character, and a tricky one at that--in other hands, Edith Head could veer into either the drab or the grotesque.

Claassen's command of the character is so sure that she even pulls off some excellent in-character ad libbing with victims from the audience halfway through the show.

Claassen certainly doesn't look 83 years old, but she moves that way, a happy compromise in a play revolving around an old woman's lively if sometimes difficultly retrieved memories of the youngest city in the world.

Those Hollywood stories hold their own appeal, and are enhanced by Head's affection for the likes of Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck and Grace Kelly--and her obvious but tightly reined dislike of Claudette Colbert and Cecil B. DeMille.

It would be hard to dislike anything about Sketches, which Claassen, the co-writers and director Calkins keep flowing smoothly on a nicely intimate scale. Claassen isn't quite alone on stage; there are a few small supporting roles. But this still feels like a one-woman show--and that woman is the remarkable Edith Head.

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