Theatre: Drowning in Veronica Lake

By Dionne Christian

American actor Veronica Lake in the 1941 film Sullivan's Travels.
American actor Veronica Lake in the 1941 film Sullivan's Travels.

Last year's Fringe Festival hit Drowning in Veronica Lake, about a Hollywood star whose life went into a downward spiral, was so popular, it's making a comeback.

Flaxworks Theatre creatives Alex Ellis and Phil Ormsby never expected their fourth show, Drowning in Veronica Lake, to have a life beyond last year's Auckland Fringe Festival.

But the one-woman show, which revisits Hollywood's 1940s and 50s "golden years" through the jaded eyes of former starlet Veronica Lake, has gone from a no-budget production to being picked up by five New Zealand Arts festivals in 18 months, travelling to the Adelaide Fringe, enjoying a return Wellington season at Circa Theatre and receiving Creative New Zealand funding to create and record music specifically for it.

Now Drowning in Veronica Lake returns to Auckland with a season at Q Theatre - with an extra treat for those keen to see more of the blond bombshell the story revolves around.

On Saturday, August 25, Ellis will perform the play and, just like the old days at the movies, there'll be an intermission followed by a screening of Lake's 1941 comedy, Sullivan's Travels. She says the film shows Lake's acting had a good deal more depth than her earlier roles, where she was typecast as the archetypal femme fatale.

"I think you only have to look at what Veronica Lake did in her life to see she was a really intelligent woman who did all she could with what she was given but was constrained by the attitudes of the day.

"At the peak of her career, she was one of Paramount's highest-paid stars; she dined with the President and piloted her own plane across the continent but in less than a decade she was out of control, out of work, out of money and stuck in a spectacular nose dive that led to alcoholism and obscurity."

The former Hollywood icon known for her lustrous peek-a-boo hairstyle, Lake now lurks in the historical shadows. Some who saw Drowning in Veronica Lake told Ellis and Ormsby they went home and googled Lake to confirm she was a real person. Which is partly why Ormsby and Ellis are surprised the play has done so well.

"I don't think we had any great expectations for it because she has become so obscure. She is certainly not widely regarded as a Hollywood historical figure and it's not a New Zealand story; those are especially popular," says Ormsby, who wrote it to illustrate the fleeting nature of fame and fortune.

Lake's rags-to-riches and back again story also has many contemporary parallels. Ellis describes her as the "poster child" for every star who finds their off-screen antics threaten to overwhelm their career - the likes of Charlie Sheen, Whitney Houston, Lindsay Lohan and Amy Winehouse.

Then there's Lake herself: feisty, flawed and complex with a smart mouth and a self-deprecating sense of humour, which Ormsby says made her likeable.

"She was partly the author of her own misfortune in that she would not take advice or listen to anybody, but she took responsibility for herself and she appears to have been constantly optimistic. I have a great deal of affection for her."

As well as a resonant story with an appealing character at its heart, Drowning in Veronica Lake is stylish to boot. Flaxworks' other productions, Biscuit and Coffee, Murder by Chocolate and Carol & Nev, were off-beat physical comedies with Ellis and Ormsby often playing a multitude of wacky characters who emerge in quick succession.

While Ellis plays multiple characters in Veronica Lake, the show took them into more dramatic territory than previous productions and, for the first time since founding Flaxworks in 2005, they worked with a director. Ellis and Ormsby said at the time that it was a marked departure from Flaxworks' previous works but a fringe festival was the perfect place to experiment with something new.

Director Simon Coleman, soon to work with Auckland Theatre Company on the musical Little Shop of Horrors, had the genius idea of "imprisoning" Ellis in a lavish 40s-style glamour gown that looks as if she were sewn into it.

Designed by Sara Taylor, who was mentored by costume designer Elizabeth Whiting, the dress is a hugely effective visual metaphor for the stifling of Lake's talent, ambitions and ultimately life. While it worked better than anyone envisaged, Ellis says it was scary to carry an entire show while being so restricted.

Because the dress, while long and flowing, is plain, lighting designer Nik Janiurek was able to use it to create a number of special effects which add to the elegant feel of the piece.

As time went on, Ellis and Ormsby realised music was more important than they had initially realised.

Lake was known to joke about how she couldn't sing. With CNZ funding, Ormsby and Ellis recruited performer Colleen Davis and musician Tom Rodwell to create a blues and jazz soundtrack reminiscent of Lake's heyday.

Now Ellis and Ormsby face a dilemma. Flaxworks started as a touring company and, with no prior knowledge of producing or touring a play, hit the road, going on to perform some 250 times at 100 venues - from purpose-built theatres to cafes and abandoned movie theatres - around the country.

They'd like to take Drowning in Veronica Lake, along with Sullivan's Travels, to smaller centres early next year but that's also leading into next year's Auckland Fringe Festival and Ormsby is keen to produce something for that.

- NZ Herald

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