Act a Lady is a convoluted but sweet look at the perils and rewards of pushing the boundaries of gender roles. When three men in a small Midwestern town decide to dress in drag for the purposes of putting on a melodrama about the French Revolution, it shakes up their ideas about gender and about themselves. The men are guided in their gender-bending journey by their Amelia Earhart-esque, pants-wearing director, who pushes them to get in touch with their inner lady.
At one point, the Women's Temperance League attempts to shut down the play—but this bogeywoman is hastily conjured and summarily dispensed with: The real conflicts here are internal, as the three men struggle to reconcile their self-perceptions with the challenges posed by putting on a dress and "acting a lady." In Act II, this struggle is brought to the foreground, as some of the men have trouble getting into character, and some have trouble breaking it.
This sparse production offers little to speak of in the way of a set—the occasional chair or table appears when needed, but no real attempt is made to set a scene. The costumes, though, are lavish and a little hilarious: elaborate dresses, magnificent headgear, even a snood (which, for the record, does not refer to the highly addictive computer game upon which I wasted some of the best years of my life, but to a "small netlike cap worn by women to keep the hair in place." Who knew.).
Act a Lady's strength and weakness are two sides of the same coin: Playwright Jordan Harrison has penned a dense script that rewards the attentive audience member with its humor and insight, but can feel impenetrably ornate at times. The actors, though, do a fine job rendering the script accessible, endowing the material with enough broad physical comedy that it's fun to watch, without veering into slapstick. Wading through Act I felt like a bit of a chore, but in Act II the cast hits sentimental pay dirt, and Harrison's tidy point about the transformative possibilities of the theater is realized.