Was it only in March 2020 that live theater shut its door across the US? Just as Theatre 40 began its run of the people-pleasing (and award-winning) hit, TAMING THE LION? How appropriate that a play highlighting that truth really is stranger than fiction was on the cusp of COVID. Set in 1933 Hollywood, TAMING THE LION spotlighted the stranglehold which motion picture giants like Louis B. Mayer held on movie land and the people who took fantasy on the journey to the screen and its eagerly waiting audiences. Would William Haines (Landon Beatty), a real-life top box office star from 1922 to 1934, be able to fight MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Jeffrey Winner) when Billy’s private life comes into conflict with his public persona? Featuring cinema icons like Joan Crawford (Marie Broderick) and Irving Thalberg (Kevin Dulude), TAMING THE LION tells a tale that has been hidden for almost 90 years, the story of a gay man and his male lover Jimmie (Sean Rose) who come up against the moral code of their times.
In honor of the second world premiere opening of TAMING THE LION, author Jack Rushen came to participate in the festive event. An award-winning playwright and the author of 30 short plays, Rushen was more than willing to discuss the play. When he was asked how he came up with the idea of TAMING THE LION, he quickly attributed the concept to a little-known documentary about Haines currently available on YouTube which he, an avid YouTuber, came upon during his travels through the YouTube world: “It was the perfect story to be told on the stage.” Clearly, others agreed with him because, out of nearly 100 submissions for the Julie Harris Playwriting Award, he was the hands-down winner.
Artistic/managing director David Hunt Stafford also contributed some words of wisdom about Theatre 40 and how “the show must go on.” In fact, between March 2020 and July 2021, Theatre 40 continued its theater appreciation class, a series of play readings which the troupe has been offering as part of an adult education program for over 20 years. Denied an in-person audience, Theatre 40 quickly adapted and presented 27 Zoom readings to its eager audiences: “When we did the readings in person, we usually had maybe a dozen people in the audience…at first, we resisted Zoom, but finally we bent…everybody read from his own house or office, and many of the readings were remarkably good…we found out that, with Zoom, we suddenly had 30 and even 40 people watching.” The response was so striking that Hunt is currently considering continuing the live play readings both in person and on Zoom.
When asked specifically about the current production of TAMING THE LION, Stafford remarked: “It’s 16 months later, and it’s like we left last weekend…everything was frozen in time…nothing changed on the stage…even the ashtray on the desk was in the same place…and nothing was touched in the dressing room…everything was exactly the same…it was as if we never left.” Happily, Warner Brothers cooperated with Theatre 40: “We rented the furniture and other pieces from Warner Brothers…when I called them after we were forced to close our doors, they said to leave everything in the theater…there would be no additional rental charges…the stage today is exactly the same as it was in March 2020…it was remarkable.”
For those of you craving live theater again, TAMING THE LION will meet – and even exceed -your expectations. Not only did director Melanie MacQueen do a yeoman’s job of reviving this fascinating bit of history, but also the cast managed to pull off a brilliant reenactment of movie history – even to physically resembling the famous people involved. Kudos to the production staff, including Jeff G. Rack (set designer), Michele Young (costume designer), Judi Lewin (hair/wigs/makeup designer), Brandon Baruch (lighting designer), and Joseph Slawinski (sound designer). Everyone involved in TAMING THE LION managed to bring the audience back to 1933 with grace, charm, and pretty good accuracy.
TAMING THE LION runs through Sunday 8/1/21 with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Theatre 40 is located in the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Tickets are $35. For information and reservations, call 310-364-0535 or go online.