All Things Entertaining and Cultural
It’s undefinable. Different people would characterize it in different ways. You can’t acquire it, rehearse for it, copy it.
“It” is “it.” You know it when you see it, and if the right person sees it, the person possessing “it” is headed for success.
The discovery of “It” changes the life for the young woman Amanda Schoonover plays in a new piece, “The It Girl,” that Schoonover crafted with director Brenna Geffers and supporting co-star Anthony Crosby.
The important parts of “The It Girl” are silent and involve a silent film star of the luster of Clara Bow, the Brooklyn teen who entered a magazine’s contest to have a screen test and was perpetually dubbed “The IT Girl” by Hollywood fanzines when she made a movie by that title. Bow played a sassy shopkeeper in this breakthrough role.
Schoonover and Geffers are smart. A series of title cards, used to advance their show’s plot, stay close to the details of Bow’s life and career, including her discovery via magazine contest, but at no time do they identity Schoonover’s character as Clara Bow.
The creators give themselves leeway to be more creative by having Schoonover’s Hollywood star stand for any woman that has “It.” Their play begins, clumsily, with the actual Amanda Schoonover, introduced as Amanda Schoonover, bestowing “The Philadelphia ‘It Girl’ Award” for 2016 at a formal ceremony. It includes a slide presentation Geffers assembled of woman from Katharine Hepburn to Audrey Hepburn and before and beyond who most would agree possess “It.” Clara Bow, though providing the embryo for Schoonover and Geffers’s show, is no more the subject of “The It Girl” than Bert Lahr is the subject of Bruce Graham’s new play, “Funnyman.” Her life and career are springboards for Schoonover and Geffers to celebrate women who have “It” while also showing the flip side of success and adulation. They illustrate the fun and glory an “It Girl” has in her heyday while delving into an “It Girl” taking her publicity too seriously and figures from her personal life, particularly lovers, disregarding “It Girl” status and showing the negative treatment familiarity breeds.
Once they get past the paste-on opening, which Geffers, as sound designer, interrupts with annoying high-pitched squeals of microphone feedback, Schoonover and Geffers tell their story in the form of a silent movie.
This is where the fun begin. Though you key into the thematic idea the creator want to explore within the first 10 of the 60 minutes Schoonover and Geffers take to unfold their essay about women, attention, fame, and disparagement, you are endlessly entertained by the variety and speed of the emotions Schoonover can communicate, impressed with Schoonover’s unexpected physical ability, and delighted by various dance sequences that employ the prodigious talents of Anthony Crosby as Schoonover’s partner.
Piecing iconic silent film takes and bits that recall Theda Bara, Mabel Normand, and Mary Pickford as well as Clara Bow, Schoonover creates an entire biography of a young woman who finds stardom in early Hollywood. Without having the benefit of the close-up or other camera tricks that show a heroine in different lights or emphasize or linger on one expression over another, Schoonover magnificently articulates a panoply of poses, attitudes, emotions, and moods that show the range of that woman’s life and how many situations we respond or react to every day.
Schoonover, an acknowledged master of line reading and characterizations, is glorious bravura as she goes through what must be dozens of smiles, frowns, pouts, ecstasies, disappointments, joys, sorrows, calms, and perils. Sometimes with lightning speed and at others with the jerky rhythms of silent films, Schoonover goes through an amazing repertoire of faces, expressions, and postures that run the gamut of human sentiments and reactions.
It is masterful work and is as laudable, as much for its seemingly inexhaustible variety as it is for the skill and nonchalance with which Schoonover goes through her paces. The treat is as choreographic as it is histrionic. Schoonover’s versatility and flexibility fascinates. You are taken with her work whether she is going through gradations of a specific emotion or is playing a dramatic scene with a beginning, middle, and end as an actress would in a movie, particularly a silent movie. On the movie set, she whoops it up as a flatter, laughs too loudly (though silently), and dissolves pathetically into tears. Think of a checklist Schoonover and Geffers might have had enumerating silent film takes, and each one is accounted for. So is meeting a loved one at a depot, getting a surprise gift, and taking a slap across the face.
The completeness of Schoonover’s repertoire is impressive. So is the dramatic organization she and Geffers gave the various routines and takes. They play as a story that allows sequences devoted to showing the degrees of difference between one pout or grin and another.
The hour “The It Girl” takes goes by quickly, but Schoonover and Geffers take no chances that a tribute to a style of film communication, a celebration of “It,” and a parade of happy and sad displays will be enough to occupy an audience’s mind for even that brief of a time. They leaven their show with dance sequences, some that fit into the action of a film Schoonover’s character is making, some that show her out on the town at the Mocambo or some Hollywood boite, and some that show her frisking with some beau in private.
In each case the man is Anthony Crosby, a physical and terpsichorial beauty who moves smoothly and lithely, has hips and shoulders as expressive as his legs, and give offer sneers, smiles, and come hither looks with the best of Bow’s classic co-stars. Among Schoonover’s gifts is radiating beauty, cuteness, and vo-do-dee-o-do fun out of pleasant plainness. Crosby maximizes his natural good looks. Together they provide some sexy moments, and Schoonover delightfully shows her dancing ability, matching Crosby step for step, hip bump for hip bump.
As happens in rags-to-riches yarns, a staple of silent movies and a element of Schoonover’s character’s story, there’s a moment of sadness at the end. Success is fleeting. A new “It Girl,” some Colbert or Davis dame, has taken the forefront. Romance has turned from fun to tawdry, even violent. Melodrama takes its course in real and “reel” life. Schoonover plays her “It Girl’s” decline with the same skill and same evocative intensity as she plays her palmier days. Although Schoonover and Geffers’s ending does not match Bow’s life — After making some talkies, to some acclaim, she married a Nevada rancher and retires. — it fits in with the paradigm of Hollywood storytelling and gives Schoonover more chance to shatter us with the depth of emotion she can generate.
I once saw Shirley MacLaine is a nightclub act in which, both by demonstration and to set up a specific scene or musical number, she went through a wide range of facial expressions. I marveled at how, within seconds, MacLaine could summon, with subtlety and completeness, any attitude or moods. It showed me what makes her such a Pantheon movie artist. If my eye could pick up such supple nuance, think of what a camera can do. Amanda Schoonover was every bit as adept as the Great MacLaine at making those quick transitions and establishing a firm hold on an emotion, only to go on to the next with equal dexterity. “The It Girl” is like one long audition reel, and based on what Schoonover shows, she will always get the part.
Heck, she has “It,” and “It” will take you far.
It takes the audience far at the new Lou Bluver Theatre at the Drake, a versatile-looking black box that promises to house many an intimate play in time to come. “The It Girl,” is a specialty piece, a theater work more than a play, but it has luster, and it gives Amanda Schoonover a part she can play at festivals all over the world if she wants. All that needs work is the opening and closing at the fictitious Philadelphia “It Girl” Awards. Beginning in the young girl’s bedroom, when she spots the ad that leads to her screen test, etc. in one of the dozen movie magazines surrounding her would make a better start. (Believe me, we can unregetingly forgo Geffers’s effects with the mike reverb.)
Schoonover, Geffers, and Crosby all deserve congratulations as do Allan Radway for his wonderful arrangement of scenery and ready props, Courtney Boches for her costumes, KO DelMarcelle for her work with the dancers, and Peter Andrew Danzig, Arlen Hancock, and Theatrical Training for their work in providing Schoonover with the moves she needed to dazzle us. (Interestingly, all but Boches are also actors who have make a mark on local stages.)
“The It Girl” runs through Sunday, February 7, produced by Simpatico Theatre at the Lou Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 15th and Hicks Street — Walk down Hicks towards Pine for the Bluver Theatre entrance. — in Philadelphia. Showtime are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 267-437-7529 or visiting www.simpaticotheatre.org.