“We had faces then,” says Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, describing the stars of silent film. They had bodies, too, and some of them – including the great Clara Bow, movie’s original It Girl – made a handful of talkies.
What they did not have – the female stars, at least – was a voice in any real sense, nor any agency.
The rise and fall of Clara Bow’s career is the starting point for The It Girl, a dazzlingly smart, heartbreaking, genre-defying theater piece, devised by Amanda Schoonover, Brenna Geffers, and Anthony Crosby. Schoonver and Crosby are also the show’s two performers – Geffers the director.
If it were only Bow’s story – a classic example of Hollywood’s ruthless commodification of female performers – the show would be worth seeing. Schoonover is a superbly expressive actress whether speaking or (as through much of The It Girl) using just her face and body. She also bears a striking resemblance to Bow, but it’s a least as much a matter of Schoonover’s talent and vibrant presence as a physical similarity.
In any case, the biographical aspects of The It Girl, and any channeling or mimicry here, is in the service of something much larger.
Throughout the piece, lines are blurred – contemporary and historical, local and global. So it is Bow’s story, told as if a silent film, though with such highly stylized (and beautifully executed) movement that it might as accurately be called a dance piece. Special kudos to Anthony Crosby who plays his assisting (though at times, “antagonistic” might be a more accurate description) role with exceptional charisma, and seems absolutely in sync with Schoonover.
But as we have come to understand powerfully by the end of The It Girl, in a way it is also Schoonover’s own story – and the story of countless actresses and other female performers (yes, it is a gendered issue) whose careers have depended upon a male-dominated business, which, over time, has elevated them and discarded them – sometimes almost simultaneously.
We’ve heard variations on this theme before – the life of Judy Garland might be the most familiar one, and a true cautionary tale. But I’ve never seen it treated with the originality we see here.
The It Girl at Simpatico is around for only a short time – and it is also a short show, running just under an hour. But it’s a must for anyone interested in theater, film, or the harrowingly fleeting idea of fame. You’ll be still be thinking about it long after Schoonover/Bow has taken her last curtain call.
The It Girl runs through February 7. For more information, visit Simpatico Theatre Project’s website.