Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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Imagining Elsa

by Gwyn McAllister, The MV Times

Most people who are familiar with the actress Elsa Lanchester remember her best for her role as “The Bride of Frankenstein” from the film of the same name. However, as brought to life by actress and playwright Charlotte Booker in her new solo show with music, there was a lot more to the lady than her ability to don a fright wig and make audiences jump. 

As you discover throughout the course of “Elsa Lanchester Tonight!” the Oscar-nominated actress, whose career spanned the early talkies to the late 1960s, was a woman of many talents as well as wit, grit, and humor. She was also someone who wasn’t afraid to dish up the dirt — even when it concerned her famous husband and fellow Brit, Charles Laughton. 

For the show, Booker has imagined Lanchester preparing for her own solo show in her dressing room, where, in between dealing with incompetent staff and inadequate facilities, she fields calls relating to the bad behavior of Laughton and a potential career-damaging item set to appear in a gossip column. She handles all with aplomb, good humor, and more than a few choice expletives. 

In between the dressing room scenes, Booker, as Lanchester, takes to the fictional vaudeville stage to perform a number of old music hall songs — some rather bawdy (“Don’t Tell My Mother I’m Living in Sin”), some sappily sentimental (“Please Sell No More Drink to My Father”), many irreverent (“Who Stole the Pennies From Me Dead Irish Mother’s Eyes”). The songs are all performed in jaunty style by Booker, who then, in character, exits the ersatz stage to continue frantically trying to keep her cool while attempting to stomp out various personal fires (for example, a drunk Laughton is threatening to hijack her show — once again).

Booker herself is a veteran actor, having appeared on stage (Broadway and regional theater) and screen (multiple TV and movie roles) for decades. She has written around a half-dozen plays, one of which was a semifinalist for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in 2021. Booker was also the co-creator and performer for a cult New York City nightclub series called “CauseCeleb!” which featured interpretive readings of celebrity autobiographies as performed by comedians such as Joan Rivers and Charles Busch. 

The upcoming performances at the M.V. Playhouse will mark the first full production of “Elsa Lanchester Tonight!” a show that Booker describes as still being a work in progress, although it is clearly a fully realized piece. 

Throughout the show, one learns a lot about the subject of this show including, among other things, that Lanchester was raised by socialist parents, that she earned her bread early on through various jobs of the not-most-respectable variety, and that she was actually a very accomplished actress who was twice nominated for Academy Awards before being relegated to cinematic history as a staple of horror films 

According to Booker, Lanchester actually did have a cabaret act in which she sang vaudeville-style songs. The playwright chose a selection of these ditties for her show, and also drew material from various autobiographies and biographies, television interviews, and other sources. “I hope that I’m able to express her humanity,” says Booker. “She was really smart, although she had no education. She was really a self-starter.”

Along with her impressive acting chops, Booker has proven herself a very skilled writer who manages to channel her characters, both on the page and on the stage. Her dedication to her current project is very evident. For example, when she discovered that Laughton was known for his humorous limericks, Booker penned a few herself when her research failed to turn up any existing examples of the actor’s verses. In these, she proves herself a worthy imitator and, throughout the show, one can’t help but imagine that the dialogue was all recorded verbatim (it’s not). Booker is that good at recreating a time, place, and character. 

She has also managed the very challenging task of presenting a biographical show that doesn’t feel like a history lesson. There’s a good deal of Lanchester’s personal story, but there’s also plenty of humor and fun little anecdotes woven throughout to keep the audience engaged while immersed in the world of old Hollywood where Booker (as Lanchester), describes the famous — and famously eccentric — duo as “two such odd ducks who suddenly became the It Couple!”

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