It would be fair to say that Susan Claassen is Mrs. Edith Head if that statement wasn’t obviously false. However, she does portray the late Hollywood costume designer with impressive passion and believability. Watching “A Conversation with Edith Head” feels like gaining VIP access to the life and secrets of Mrs. Head instead of simply attending another play at Herberger Theater Center.
The show is essentially a one-woman performance all about the life of Edith Head. Stuart Moulton introduces Mrs. Head at the start of the show and provides a brief background of her career as the audience awaits her entrance. Once she enters, the theater is transformed from a performance space to an intimate evening in 1981 with one of the most impressive women to ever work in show business.
In the show, Claassen says, “People say to me, ‘Edith what makes you different from other designers?’ I tell them I’m not different; I’m just the best. I hate modesty, don’t you?”
Edith Head began her film career in 1923. When she applied for her first position as a sketch artist for C.B. Demille, she didn’t know much about art, so she borrowed sketches from classmates in her art class and used them to create her portfolio. Needless to say, she got the job, and she soon grew into the costume designer that made history.
Edith Head worked with and designed costumes for some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Bob Hope, Bette Davis, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. She was nominated for 35 Academy Awards — winning eight of them — making her the woman with the most Academy Awards in the history of the award show.
Claassen utilizes the simple but eye-catching set to enhance her performance. Pictures of stars line the walls and mannequins with some of Mrs. Head’s designs are on the stage. Throughout the performance, Claassen points to various photos and moves around other props to provide visualizations for the stories that she tells the audience.
During the show, Claassen also engages the audience by commenting on various patrons’ outfits and utilizing the collective knowledge of the people there to help her “remember” facts. At one point in the show, she tries to remember the name of someone she worked with. Claassen said, “I am very dear friends with Alfred Hitchcock. I had been working with him on ‘Torn Curtain’ with Paul Newman and the English girl who sings a little.”
She pauses and waits to see if the audience can help her remember who else was in the film.
“Julie Andrews,” multiple audience members said.
The use of the audience not only keeps everyone engaged but also adds to the humor and endearing quality of Claassen’s portrayal of Mrs. Head. The script by Claassen and Paddy Calistro, Edith Head’s official biographer, also lends unmistakable authentication to the show, including some of Mrs. Head’s very own words.
The only downfall of the show is that it might not be as captivating to a younger audience as it will be to an older audience or an audience full of movie buffs. If you grew up after Edith Head’s time in Hollywood, a lot of her references won’t mean much.
That being said, Claassen’s portrayal of Mrs. Head is a real treat. The show is a promising season opener for Actors Theatre’s 26th season. If you want to be entertained, this is a show for you, and as a bonus, you’ll probably even learn something new.
Tickets can be purchased online at herbergertheater.org or at phx.org, including tickets for a “Pay-What-You-Wish” performance on Sept. 28. The theater is located at 222 E. Monroe St., near ASU’s downtown campus. For more information, visit the Herberger Theater Center’s box office or call 602-252-8497.
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