Adultery, jealousy, bootleg liquor, violence, blackmail and Jazz Age excess – these are the volatile ingredients of the play, The Cat’s Meow, by Steven Peros, which receives its Canadian premiere June 8 at the Coast Capital Playhouse, in a White Rock Players production directed by Shelagh Shermann.
It’s inspired by a real-life Hollywood scandal of the 1920s, one that legendary pioneer film director D.W. Griffith summed up succinctly in later years.
“All you have to do to make Hearst turn white as a ghost is mention (Thomas) Ince’s name,” he said. “There’s plenty wrong there, but Hearst is too big to touch.”
Griffith was referring to an ill-starred weekend on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in November of 1924 – a pleasure cruise from San Diego that, according to whispers that circulated for decades, went very, very wrong.
A mysterious death, galloping rumours, a botched investigation that to many screamed ‘cover up’ – all have made the cruise of the Oneida an enduring legend of the movie capital.
Guest of honour on the cruise was Ince (played by Jason Dedrick), a once famed, but now forgotten, producer and director who was celebrating his 43rd birthday. A married man, he was on board with his mistress, the barely remembered movie actress Margaret Livingston (Alexandra Wilson), and his manager, George Thomas (Fred Partridge).
But other guests on the yacht – some of whom later denied they were there – have names that have remained lustrous.
There was the beloved ‘Little Tramp’ of silent comedy, Charlie Chaplin (Michael Jenkins). And the middle-aged Hearst’s much younger mistress, movie actress Marion Davies (Marissa Whiteway).
Lesser known today, but just as influential in their time, were fellow guests Elinor Glyn (Deborah Spitz), whose racy novels helped define the Roaring ’20s, and Louella Parsons (Jane Mantle), destined to be one of the gossip columnists that wielded unimaginable power in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s.
Most powerful of all was Hearst himself – a multi-millionaire capable of shaping public opinion and influencing U.S. foreign policy, the model for Charles Foster Kane in the Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane.
Played by Paul Kloegman, Hearst was a man known for dark vindictiveness toward employees and ruthlessness toward enemies. But he could also appear pathetically vulnerable in his need for, and deference to, Davies.
While she was loyal to him in her own fashion, her naturally fun-seeking nature was vulnerable to flirtatious advances – particularly those of Chaplin, an infamous off-screen lothario who was about to be forced into a shotgun wedding with a former conquest.
“Even though the play is based on events that happened in 1924, it isn’t that dissimilar to things that are going on now in terms of celebrity life – think of Arnold Schwarzenegger,” said Shermann, who admits that old Hollywood has always held a fascination for her.
But even though it is dealing with celebrities far in the past, Sherman acknowledges that there are inherent risks in having actors depict people who are so famous – particularly in an amateur show where there is little scope for casting look-alikes.
“I can only evoke the people,” she said, noting that Kloegman is not as large a man as Hearst – who was reportedly huge – while neither Jenkins as Chaplin or Dedrick as Ince are as short as their real-life counterparts.
“But when I cast the roles, I felt confident I could get from the actors the characterizations I needed,” she added, noting that she’s encouraged them to research the real-life people.
In the case of the more famous personalities, it helps that there is no direct depiction of their screen personas, she said.
“I had to make a decision that Michael is playing Chaplin – not the Little Tramp. Chaplin, in real life, was an intelligent, attractive man; so much more than you see on screen.
“When Michael came in to read he had the quality of a Chaplin. The physicality of the way he read was a little bit Chaplinesque.”
Whiteway also had the quality she was seeking for Marion Davies, she said.
“She had the poise required of someone in her mid 20s who has been with Hearst some time now. She is comfortable in her role as Hearst’s hostess, even though she’s wanting to have a good time, and flirting dangerously with Chaplin.”
Ince is a challenge for Dedrick’s emerging power as a dramatic actor – which was seen to great advantage this season in Earth and Sky, Shermann said.
“He’s a man that’s desperate. He’s lost, basically, all of his power and he wants Hearst to put some money into his studio. He’s trying to get his reputation back.”
Kloegman’s considerable acting talents make him larger-than-life as Hearst, she added.
“Just his stance and his way of speaking brings a power to the role. You see a lot of his awkwardness in dealing with social situations and younger people. You see his needs and his wants – and the jealousy that overtakes him.”
The show runs in Wednesday to Saturday performances at 8 p.m. until June 25 (with a Sunday matinee June 19, 2:30 p.m.).
For tickets, visit www.whiterockplayers.ca or call 604-536-7535.