When Carla Milarch is good she's very good

ANN ARBOR – Carla Milarch hopes you'll come up and see her some time this summer as she tackles the role of Mae West in "Dirty Blonde," the final production of Performance Network Theatre's 25th anniversary season. "I wouldn't say it's very racy, but it certainly has its racy elements," the actress teased one afternoon last week just prior to a rehearsal. "It's definitely a bawdy show."
The comedy continues a programming trend theatergoers have come to expect from the Network. "Summertime has usually been reserved for shows that may be a little bit controversial or sort of racy, because that's the time our more conservative subscribers have a tendency to go away or take vacations. So we take the opportunity to get back to our roots a little and put the edge back in," said Milarch, who also serves as the theater's artistic director.
Claudia Shear's 2000 Tony-nominated play, which opens in previews July 12, fits the concept quite nicely. "One of the reasons for choosing it was just because Mae West was such an innovator," Milarch explained. "She was ahead of her time. She espoused a lot of beliefs that are still not fully embraced by mainstream America – inclusiveness, acceptance and the celebration of sexuality in all its forms. That's one of the beautiful things about Mae West. She really stood up for sex. She didn't see any reason why sex should be such a taboo subject, and she took every chance to push that envelope. And I think that's really wonderful. It's still very much needed in our society."
Director Jim Posante agrees. "Mae West was such an amazing creature. The inclusiveness in her world – African-Americans, gays, transvestites, transgenders – everyone was part of her world in a natural way. It was not anything she forced into her life. Her openness is quite surprising, when you think about the time period."
"Dirty Blonde," Milarch and Posante explained, is a parallel story about the life of Mae West and two modern-day fans, Jo and Charlie, who meet at West's grave on the star's birthday. "In a way, it's about the assumptions we make about one another, based on certain surface perceptions," Milarch said. "(Jo) makes an assumption that (Charlie) is gay because he likes Mae West, and that he's as obsessed with her as she is. And a lot of decisions she makes about her relationship with this guy (are) based on that assumption."
The play is also an interesting exploration of our own personal prejudices and the associations we make about people's sexuality, Milarch noted. "It's very much a play about sexuality in all its different forms."
Plus, Posante added, "There's some secrets involved that make it a more interesting relationship."
One of the actress's greatest challenges – besides playing both of the show's female characters – is living up to the audience's expectations. "Everyone has a different vision of her in their heads. Some people picture her as huge and buxom, but she was really a small woman. And people look at me and go, 'Are they going to pad you?' So it's interesting: How am I ever going to reconcile everybody's interpretation of Mae West into this one character so that people believe my portrayal of this woman? It's definitely in the pantheon of 'hardest roles yet.'"
Luckily, Milarch has been preparing for it since childhood. "I don't quite know where this came from, but I remember when my sister and I were little girls, we would sit in our bedroom and make fake radio plays up," she recalled. "We'd go back and forth and record it, and then we'd play it back and listen to it. And one of the characters I did was Mae West. I just wish that I still had those tapes, because I'd love to listen to eight-year-old Carla Milarch doing a Mae West imitation. I don't know what that would sound like."
Today, the adult Milarch believes West's unshakeable confidence in herself is an inspiration to a lot of women. Yet West's mass of contradictions is equally fascinating. "There were a lot of areas in her personality that could be identified as pre-feminist or early feminist," Milarch said. "But then she was absolutely about femininity. She thought women should be soft and curvy, and have men buy them expensive things. So she had these off-the-wall, very eccentric beliefs about what a woman was supposed to be, and she sold it to millions and millions of people."
Milarch urges anyone who is interested in sex, fascinated by sex or turned on by sex to see "Dirty Blonde" – even if they're not a Mae West fan. "It's about the urge to live life at its fullest – to embrace your desires and make them reality. And it uses song, dance, comedy and innuendo in order to do just that – and in the process, it becomes a really enjoyable night of theater."

'Dirty Blonde'
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor. Previews July 12-15 & 19 ($20-$28); runs Thu.-Sun., July 20-Aug. 19. Tickets: $25-$37. For information: 734-663-0681 or