“You’ll never believe this story…” Veronica Lake said in an interview in 1969, four years before her death. She was talking about the origin of her moniker, “Lake”, which came about when a producer said to her, “The ‘Lake’ is the coolness one feels when they look into your eyes.”
Veronica Lake had a penchant for spinning false tales about herself, and such is the theme of Drowning in Veronica Lake, a one-woman show at the Gasworks theatre starring Alex Ellis, written by Phil Ormsby and directed by Simon Coleman.
Throughout the play, Ellis channels the 40s movie star Veronica Lake (real name Constance Ockelman) replete with peek-a-boo hairstyle and drawling American accent. Lake spins a tale for her audience which seems to encompass everything we suspect about the dangerous lure of the Hollywood lifestyle: fame, wealth and beauty countered by booze, divorce and an early demise. Lake is both proud of her story and tormented by it, as if she didn’t know what she was getting into but she couldn’t stop herself. The result is a captivating monologue with a lasting message about the objectification of celebrity.
At the beginning of the play, Alex Ellis is already on stage. She stands with one hand on her hip and back to the audience. Her stunning white gown—courtesy of costume designers Sara Taylor and Elizabeth Whiting—is draped over the stage in a big circle around the movie star. Ice-cold blue lights shine down on the protagonist and she appears like a stalagmite thrust up from the floor of the stage. It’s an effective directorial choice by Coleman to have her there before the play begins—as if she were waiting for us and won’t start her story until we’re all ready to hear it. Some eerie electronica plays from the speakers, transitioning into a 40s jazz tune.
Ormsby and Ellis first put on Drowning in Veronica Lake in 2011, during the Dunedin Fringe Festival. It’s been put on several times in Australia New Zealand since. As a result the play feels polished; Ellis is in full control of her character and the monologue pours out of her with ease.
There are many stories and anecdotes floating around on the internet and in the tabloids about Veronica Lake, and almost all of them are recounted here. The narrative progresses from Lake’s discovery by a producer, her first few films and her eventual downfall, though the story is rambling and full of tangents: Lake gleefully tells a terrifying story about the time she almost crashed a plane she herself bought, nearly killing herself and her friend; she remembers the first time she had to put her hair up for a work-safety commercial when adoring copycats were getting their hair caught in machinery. All this is interspersed with various caricatures Ellis impersonates with ease.
It becomes clearer as the story progresses that we’re witnessing Veronica Lake in a kind of purgatory—ensnared in her own dress, centre stage like a museum exhibit, she’s forced to tell her story for eternity. Ormsby’s script captures the caustic wit Lake was known to have. Reflecting on motherhood, Lake says she “took to motherhood like a duck takes to vodka”. Over the course of the 60-minute play she exclaims “Kaboom!” to signal her ascent into stardom, again and again until it turns into a sarcastic quip conveying how quickly she was ejected from Hollywood.
The anecdotes are often broken up by a musical number. The lights would dim and cast Ellis’s big shadow behind her as she writhed and twisted in the dress or drank from her flask. Though Nick Janiurek’s lighting was subtly effective, the music was a little underwhelming. What should have been rollicking big band tunes evoking the glamour of Hollywood’s golden age were instead lukewarm space-fillers. One scene has Lake cowering from paparazzi as the lights flash and a deluge of camera clicks erupts, but the soft camera flashes don’t complement Ellis’s dramatic movements.
It would be almost impossible to fault Alex Ellis’s performance, however. Though 5’10 where Lake was a petite 5’1, Ellis breathes life back into the all but forgotten star. Her eyes light up as she remembers the parties and the glamour and she gets cynical when it all becomes too overwhelming, when tabloid after tabloid is printing her face and story.
Ellis’s performance is a lot of talk, but the physicality allows her to own the performance, instead of just being a vessel for an excellent script. When motherhood becomes too much, after one child dies, Lake hits the bottle hard. She sullies the purity of her white dress by pulling out a flask and taking concealed sips, before dismissing shame and swigging vodka from a bottle in a heap on the floor, her dress drawn up around her.
When she inhabits other characters, Ellis shows off her chops at imitating accents. Lake’s mother Constance has a twangy Boston harangue and her Hungarian husband’s few words provide great comic relief.
The play may have been a mouthful for Ellis but the words feel natural. Two great collaborators, Ellis and Ormsby own the theatre production company Flaxworks together. There’s no doubt they’ll go on to produce many more fine shows.
Drowning in Veronica Lake is a timely piece for a culture so fixated on celebrity. Lake’s story eventually ends in a 4th divorce, a schizophrenia diagnosis, alcoholism and death at 51. At the end, the stage darkens and Lake turns away from us again, resuming the position she had when we walked in, as if waiting for her next audience. As onlookers and objectifiers of Veronica Lake, do we not share some responsibility in her downfall? Lake’s final words urge us to tell her story, spread her legend, to give her some movement while she remains constricted on stage:
“I can wait,” she says. “I’ll be here—I’m not going anywhere.”