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Theater Review: Rogue Machine's 'Vivien' at Theatre Theater

August 16, 2011 |  3:10 pm

Judith Chapman as Vivien Leigh

Actresses seeking immortal fame have options: be gorgeous, win Academy Awards, marry and divorce celebrities, go mad, drop out of the public eye, contract incurable diseases. 

Vivien Leigh, leaving nothing to chance, picked all of the above. Her Oscar-winning turns as Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois, stormy marriage to Laurence Olivier, manic depression, electroshock treatments and fatal tuberculosis, not to mention her velvety, Old Hollywood glamour, make her an outsized emblem of a lost era.

In his one-woman play “Vivien,” being produced by Rogue Machine, Rick Foster brings the star a little closer to earth. Fiftyish, near death, in a delirious dream, this Leigh drinks, smokes, coughs, gloats over early triumphs and laments her demotion to roles in which "an aging beauty faces physical decay and her loss of power over men." Roaming Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s gracefully spare, allusive set, she chats with phantom past friends (Winston Churchill, with whom she flirts like Scarlett) and nemeses (Kenneth Tynan, “that brilliant little … of a critic.”). She addresses the audience as a confidant, sharing her struggles with the two poles of her madness, "Miss Mania" and "The Duchess of Darkness," as well as juicy morsels about her on- and offstage partnership with “beautiful, shining, brilliant, darling Larry,” whose growing vanity left her “mourning the death of a man’s greatness.”

Foster developed “Vivien” with the actress Janis Stevens, but it’s hard to imagine anybody inhabiting the role more convincingly than soap opera veteran Judith Chapman. Her mastery of Leigh’s mannerisms -- that cat-that-got-the-cream smile, that icy stare, that lilting voice -- is uncanny. 

The role requires her to veer among violent emotions, which director Elina de Santos has chosen to depict physically. Chapman, who excels at the dry aside, is also obliged to claw walls, spew incoherent sentence fragments, lurch, reel and shriek. At times she gets so Blanchey that I wanted Marlon Brando to bust in and yell, “Let’s cut the re-bop!” But you can’t deny a grande dame her grandiosity. More than one audience member looked glassy-eyed at the curtain call. And I suspect I wasn't the only one who went home reconciled to my comparatively dull life. 

-- Margaret Gray

“Vivien,” Theatre Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 4. $40 and up. Contact: (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com. Running time: 90 minutes.

Photo: Judith Chapman channels Vivien Leigh. Credit: John Flynn

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