ALL ABOUT BETTE: An Interlude with Bette DavisBy Camilla Carr
Starlight Entertainment and Michael A. Jenkins presents in collaboration with Dovetayle productions and
Starring Morgana Shaw
Direction, Costume and Set Design by Ryan Matthieu Smith
Lighting Design and Stage Management by Caleb Pieterse
Sound Design by Cherish Robinson
Board Operation by Kennedy Styron
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
When I was in high school I spent several summers working at the local public library. One day while putting books back on the shelf I picked up a book about MGM studios. During their golden age MGM’s motto was “More stars than there are in the heavens.” One of those stars was Joan Crawford. I started to read every book about Crawford, which led me to Bette Davis. I devoured those books about the two time Oscar winner. This all segued to their films, many that I have watched. So when the FX mini-series Feud premiered I could not wait. The critically acclaimed series went into rich detail about these two titans of celluloid who battled it out while making the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. I loved every second of that series because it went into such great detail.
When the one woman play All About Bette starring Morgana Shaw originally premiered here in Dallas, I never got a chance to see it. So when it was revived this month, I was able to catch one of its final performances.
The production played in the round at the very intimate Stone Cottage Theater that is nestled on the grounds of Watertower Theater. This space proved to be both a pro and a con for the play. With it being in the round and the sold out audience so close to Davis (Shaw), we were able to catch every intricate emotion and facial expression, right down to her eyes. The con was the theater’s hardwood floors and odd swallowed/echoed like sound that bounced off the walls. Thus, when Shaw walked across on that hardwood floor you could hear the sound of her high heels click louder than normal. At times her dialogue would get swallowed up and unable to understand due to the walls and ceiling. This was no fault to Shaw; it was due to the physical aspects of the space.
Ryan Mattheiu Smith did triple duty as Director and Costume/Set Designer. I find theater in the round is a cruel, unforgiving creature in theater. You have to stage and block for three or four sides of the house. And one side will always miss a moment due to this. Smith wisely staged and blocked Shaw to cover all three sides. He used the intimate space to his advantage. The pace was spot on all evening long. You can clearly see how both director and actress collaborated on every element of the play. When you have only one actor to direct in the round, that is a complicated task to achieve, which Smith succeeded. I was greatly impressed by his direction.
As costume designer he had Shaw enter wearing a black fur coat and one of those big, chunky hats Davis wore in her final years. Two other costumes were underneath this, with the final one a copper hued satin cocktail dress with a billowing skirt. These costumes worked well with Shaw. But I so wished Smith had recreated the exquisite gown that Edith Head designed for Davis in All About Eve. This was the satin floor length copper/chocolate gown that she wore in the scene where she threw a party for her boyfriend. It was in fact Davis’s suggestion to Head to add pockets (trimmed in faux fur) to the gown. This is such an iconic Davis costume that would have made a great visual moment for Shaw.
It is quite clear that Camilla Carr has done her homework with her script for All About Bette. But it did have some problems. The script does not stick to a timeline and progression of Bette’s professional career and private life. It jumps all over the place. As a Davis fanatic I kept thinking, “Wait, that happened much later/earlier.” I couldn’t tell if Carr wanted to focus on Davis’s career or her four marriages. Carr did include in her script a small moment about Davis’s daughter B.D. Hyman. It was Hyman who wrote her tell all book about her famous mother. But Carr did not bring up Davis’s other daughter Margot Merrill. She was adopted and disabled. Davis sadly placed Margot in a home, which was a deep dark secret Davis kept from the press.
Maybe because of the FX series Feud, Carr decided to only bring up snippets of the Davis/Crawford battle. I was surprised that Carr did not write for Morgana Shaw a scene to recreate on stage the infamous Oscar night. Davis was nominated for Baby Jane while Crawford did not get a nod. But the shoulder pad, shop girl had the final laugh. She went to all the other nominated actresses and told them she would gladly accept the award if they were not able to attend. It is well documented that Davis wanted this Oscar so badly. Sadly, this would not be her night; Anne Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker. Crawford whispered to Davis (they were both in the wings) “Excuse me”, brushed aside Davis and went on stage bathed in the spotlight and applause to accept for Bancroft the Oscar. This crushed Davis. I think that would have been such a powerful and emotional scene for Ms. Shaw to bring to life on stage.
Finally, I was perplexed that Carr did not go much more into detail regarding Davis and her film Jezebel. Carr did put in her script that Davis was up for the role of Scarlett in Gone With The Wind. In fact Davis was one of the top three finalists for the role, but as we all know, she did not get the role. This angered her so much that the studio gave Davis her own Southern drama titled Jezebel to calm her rage. The film was released in 1938, a year before Gone With The Wind and it earned Davis the Oscar for Best Actress.
Carr’s play was still quite enjoyable and immensely entertaining to watch. I know I am nit-picking here, but that is just the obsessed Davis fan within me.
Morgana Shaw is one of the best and finest actresses within the DFW theater community. So few can achieve what Shaw can do on the stage. She has that very rare talent that she can do both plays and musicals, and can do comedy and drama, all with matchless and stunning artistic success. Shaw is that one of a kind actress that has incredible and diverse range within her talents. Having said that, there is no other actress I could see portraying Davis other than Morgana Shaw. She does NOT do an impersonation of Davis. She does not overplay or exaggerate Davis’s voice, facial expressions, or mannerisms. Instead Shaw dissects deep into the woman that is Davis. She brings out the true essence of this complicated screen legend. Shaw transforms from the elderly Davis who suffered a stroke that paralyzed part of her face into the youthful, demanding and radiant star. She does this transformation in front of the audience with staggering success. What is surreal is how Shaw made her face metamorphose into Davis’s features, including those famous eyes. Shaw is so riveting that you actually forget that you are seeing an actress portraying Bette Davis, but instead you truly believe that you are seeing the real Davis in front of you. That is a testament to Shaw’s magnificent talents.
Shaw also nailed the tone and emotion of Davis’s sense of humor, which at times was cruel. There were times when Shaw had to stay in character and wait until the laughter subsided. As for the dramatic moments and scenes Shaw goes deep into the subtext to expose to the audience what Davis must have felt. Shaw displayed to the audience the naked, brutal honesty in those painful moments in Davis’s life, both professionally and personally.
A one person show is extremely difficult to do. You have to carry the entire show yourself, you must possess the dynamic stage presence and acting craft to hold the audience’s attention for an entire show. Now add to that almost impossible feat you also have to portray with complete conviction and honesty one of the greatest actresses in film history. Shaw succeeds in all those challenges with extraordinary and mesmerizing success. Morgana Shaw is indeed all fire and music!
There are two are more performances left. Friday August 25 and Saturday August 26, both at 8:00pm at the Stone Cottage Theatre, Addison 75001. For ticket info: