Salomé Silent Screen Star and Stanislavsky Student Shines in Stellar Solo Show

Photo by David Wayne Fox

If you are a fan of plays featuring and exploring bravura acting, Hollywood history, LGBTQIA issues, creative stagecraft, feminism, anti-Semitism, one-person shows, illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and more, strap on those running shoes and dash, do not walk, to experience Garden of Alla: The Alla Nazimova Story, which is currently having a limited engagement at Theatre West. Romy Nordlinger depicts the eponymous legendary stage and screen thespian Alla Nazimova in this one-woman piece de resistance which the New York actress also wrote. In doing so, a theater and movie myth (and nymph) lives again in an 80-or-so minute show that imaginatively uses rear screen projections to tell the tale of Alla and her legendary mansion  precariously perched in Tinseltown, once upon a time.

Film historian David Thompson wrote: “So many critics and observers reported that Nazimova, on stage, brought a startling immediacy to every scene, so that people believed they were beholding real life.” Among those theatergoers whom Alla bestowed an indelible impression upon were bards-to-be Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, whose gushing quotes lauding her are projected onscreen. Alla apparently channeled the dictum of her renowned acting mentor, Constantin Stanislavsky, to “be” and not to “act” into her performances, generating a heightened sense of realism. The thesp strove for a form of acting without acting, and throughout Nordlinger’s bioplay she quotes the cherished Constantin: “Love the art in yourself and not yourself in the art.”

The Yalta-born Alla also hobnobbed with her fellow Russian, Anton Chekhov, and went on to star in his plays, such as The Cherry Orchard. But Alla’s past wasn’t all a bowl of cherries; Garden details a youth filled with abuse and abandonment, and being Jewish in czarist Russia complicated existence. All this prompted the budding talent to eventually migrate and reinvent herself onstage at New York’s Great White Way. There, she falls under the wing of Broadway impresario Lee Shubert, one of the number of non-Nazimova real life figures who the multi-talented Nordlinger portrays on the boards during her rollicking one-act, one-woman (but many roles) show. Her Shubert schtick is especially amusing.

Inevitably, Alla crosses the continent, goes Hollywood, and works for movie mogul Lewis (father of David O.) Selznick. Her first film, 1916’s War Brides (alas, as Thompson points out in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, prints of it, plus other productions starring Alla, no longer exist – alas) does boffo box office. The actress goes on to earn $13,000 a week, then a phenomenal sum, and stars opposite Rudolph Valentino in 1921’s Camille. (The quick-witted Alla quips that while the iconic Latin lover was renowned as “a lady killer, it was the ladies who killed Valentino,” who died prematurely at the age of 31 in 1926.) 

Alla uses her loot to purchase land and a mansion at Sunset Blvd. and Crescent Heights, which she turns into a haven for the movie colony, the glitterati, etc., devoted to self-indulgent self-expression and fun. Its famed habitues ran the gamut from Charlie Chaplin to F. Scott Fitzgerald (and his cameraman, F. Stop Fitzgerald, the reviewer scribbled, endlessly amusing himself), Errol Flynn, Ernest Hemingway, et al.

Much is made of Alla’s much-vaunted beauty and sexuality; eschewing what we today call binary gender “norms,” Nazimova partakes of all sexes, and then some. Her having been a prostitute is alluded to, and it seems that, technically, she was a bigamist, while having a proverbial eye for the ladies, as well as the gents. The plays suggests that fame and fortune empowered her to live out her childhood trauma larger than life, on- and off- the stage and screen, and perhaps above all, at her coveted mansion. Her sexually charged 1922 silver screen adaption of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, which Alla starred in and co-directed, was deemed a scandal, and Nazimova was fodder for gossip columnists (if I heard correctly, one is referred to as “Heidi” Hopper). 

Director Lorca Peress, video and graphic designer Adam Jesse Burns, plus score and sound designer Nick T. Moore combine to render an impressive, vivid portrait of the title character, which of course is enlivened by Nordlinger’s dynamic, captivating presence. (A New York-based talent, Garden has previously been performed by Nordlinger Off-Broadway and elsewhere.) The great projections include clips from Alla’s films, artwork by Beardsley illustrating an edition of Wilde’s Salomé (of which I own a vintage copy) and heaps more. Projections linking the immigrant Alla to the Statue of Liberty are especially touching.

What befell Alla’s legendary garden is an allegory for Tinseltown’s faded glory and glamor. Considering that documentarians such as Steve James in his new The Compassionate Spy and Errol Morris are using re-enactments, it made me wonder if a new form of documentary/biopic could be forged with a thespian portraying the main character, incorporated with archival footage, clips, talking heads, and the like?

In less than an hour and a half this one-acter covers lots of ground and made this erstwhile film historian want to see Alla’s movies that were not shot on silver nitrate stock and still exist. Fortunately, a couple of those films are being screened at Theatre West during this all-too-brief run (for details see below). But to paraphrase an old rye bread commercial, you don’t have to be a film historian to love Garden – real film history, brilliantly and joyously brought back to life. To paraphrase Bosch (Hieronymous the painter, not Harry the fictitious detective, who BTW lives in the hills near Theatre West in Michael Connelly’s novels), this deliciously mounted bioplay is a Garden of earthly (and earthy!) delights for theatergoers. Feel free to wear your favorite period Flapper couture (as many audience members did on opening night) and don’t miss it!

Garden of Alla: The Alla Nazimova Story is playing Fridays at 8:00 p.m. July 14, July 21;
Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., July 8*, July 15*, July 22; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. July 9**, July 16, July 23 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles, CA 90068. See:
*Screenings of Nazimova’s Salomé (1923) and Camille (1921) follow the performances on Saturday, July 8 and Saturday, July 15 respectively (included in the ticket price; separate admission $5). **A Q & A with Martin Turnbull, founder of The Alla Nazimova Society and author of the 9-book “Hollywood’s Garden of Allah” series follows the performance on Sunday, July 9. 


Photo by David Wayne Fox