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LA Theater Review

Vivien

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Vivien
Photo Source: John Flynn
Of the famous thespians one might consider to be a promising subject for a solo bio-play, Vivien Leigh (1913–1967), deemed one of the supreme actors of her generation, is a prime choice. This beauty of British and Indian descent was a gorgeous and classy woman with a colorful though complicated personality and a tragically brief life. She was plagued with bipolar disorder and died at age 53 of tuberculosis. Rick Foster's 1997 play "Vivien" provides a juicy acting vehicle as well as an incisive life portrait, deftly covering a sweeping range of events and emotions within 90 minutes. Actor Judith Chapman and director Elina de Santos offer much to savor in this smart and elegant showcase, including guilty-pleasure theatrics, great humor and poignancy, and an opportunity to learn tantalizing tidbits about an indelible showbiz legend.

Leigh tackled some of the greatest female roles on the screen, including Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" and Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire," mastering a Southern dialect while projecting plenty of sass and angst. Chapman convincingly re-creates snippets of these characterizations and others, and Foster skillfully weaves text from Leigh's works with incidents from her life. He strikes a perfect balance between surveying her career and illuminating the joys and despair she experienced. Chapman portrays Leigh as a woman of remarkable dignity, grace, and courage—qualities she depicts even as Leigh descends into fits of madness.

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's scenic design, Leigh Allen's lighting, and Chris Moscatiello's sound conjure the glamour of the eras depicted and enhance the play's seamless shifting of moods. The framing device has Leigh arriving early in a vacant London theater in July 1967 for a reading of Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," in which she was to play Agnes. She never did the role, as her illness took an abrupt turn for the worse and she died shortly thereafter. As Leigh recalls her past, the scenes shift to her dressing room and other locales, and we hear her half of conversations with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Winston Churchill, Peter Finch, and her second husband, Laurence Olivier. She had a tempestuous relationship with the reportedly bisexual Olivier, whom she resented for never casting her in his Shakespearean films and who broke her heart with his endless philandering. Chapman elicits empathy and laughs in Leigh's description of viperous critic Kenneth Tynan, who continually disparaged her stage work. Among the most hilarious instances of no-holds-barred candor is Leigh's description of kissing vain superstar Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind," who she says had "bourbon-scented breath and false teeth."

Chapman's portrayal provides a skillful assimilation of Leigh's attitudes and mannerisms, though wisely stopping short of an impersonation. This actor is physically beautiful, and she possesses the poise and intelligence to capture Leigh's star quality, as well as her human frailties: insecurity, vanity, and fear. Chapman's delivery of various accents is flawless. This is a bravura performance, through and through.

Presented by the Troubadours of Daytime at Rogue Machine, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. Aug. 12-Sept. 4. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (Sat., Aug. 27, 5 p.m.; Sun., Aug. 28, 3 p.m. Additional performance Mon., Aug. 29, 8 p.m. No performance Fri., Aug. 26.) (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com.

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