Eat your heart out, Barbra Streisand.
The Big Gig isn’t the only thing going on in the Third Ward this weekend. For three nights, from June 29th to July 1st, Theater RED and Untitled Productions are presenting the Milwaukee premiere of I’ll Eat You Last, a one-woman show based on the real-life antics of Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, whose explosive personality and staggering client list made her a celebrity in her own right.
The show takes place at the Kimpton Journeyman. According to Mary Kruse, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, a bar has been set up in the ballroom where the play will be staged, meaning that audience members can match Marcee Doherty-Elst, who plays Mengers, drink for drink. And the seating arrangements will be far cozier – in keeping with the play’s setting, Mengers’ living room – than those of a conventional theater space.
Director Eric Welch says that Doherty-Elst, kept the crew laughing through rehearsals. “She’s been doing a great job and I can’t wait for audiences to see her play this character,” he says, adding that “even if you don’t recognize all the celebrities she’s talking about, the stories and the storytelling are hilarious.”
In advance of the opening performance, we asked Doherty-Elst to spill a few secrets (much like a gossipy talent agent) about the show.
What did you do to prepare for the role?
In addition to reading and re-reading the script, I also read a book by biographer Brian Kellow, Can I Go Now? The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Super Agent, that was filled with information about her life and insights from her closest friends (yes, she had friends!). I also researched Sue Mengers online and read her Vanity Fair feature, watched her “60 Minutes” segment with Mike Wallace and started reading up on the movie stars she represented and the people she worked with, including watching some of the movies she refers to in the script.
What makes Sue an engaging character?
Sue Mengers was one of the most outrageous showbiz characters of the 1960s and 70s … a powerful and colorful woman who didn’t mince words and was unapologetically bold and brash. Back at the time, this was even more incredible (and shocking). I think she’s wicked funny, too! She became Hollywood’s first Super Agent entirely through her own doing – she set her sights and she went for it!
How is I’ll Eat You Last like or unlike past Theater RED productions?
I think what IEYL shares in common with past Theater RED productions is that is does feature substantial roles for women, one of our founding tenets.
Theater Red is co-producing the show with Untitled Productions. What’s that collaboration process been like?
Wonderful! This is Untitled Productions inaugural season and their very first show, so being a part of that is pretty special. The idea for this show actually came from Untitled Productions; Theater RED became involved after I was cast when we thought it might makes sense to partner our companies to help this new company with some of the production aspects. Eric Welch, the Artistic Director of Untitled Productions and the Director of IEYL, is a huge Barbra Streisand fan, so when this play premiered at the Booth Theater in New York in 2011 – with Bette Midler as Sue Mengers – Eric became fascinated with the script. For folks who don’t know, Sue Mengers represented many Hollywood stars, but the most famous of them was Barbra Streisand, who was also a close personal friend for most of Sue’s life.
What sort of person do you think the show will appeal to?
Anyone who loves show business, celebrity gossip and the golden era of Hollywood movies from the 1950s through the early 1980s. Especially Barbra Streisand fans. Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Julie Harris, Ali MacGraw, Steve McQueen, Bobby Evans, Burt Reynolds, Jane Fonda, Michael Caine, Candice Bergen, Ryan O’Neal – the list of stars she represented and stories she tells goes on and on! Sue Mengers was a powerful woman whose story really charts the evolution of show business and celebrates cinema’s most exhilarating period.
The above interview has been edited for length.