Do you remember a sexy movie with Lauren Bacall as a glamorous society woman turned wartime spy named Betty, blazing through men and countries, from South America to Europe, seducing her way to crucial information for the Allies in WWII?
No? That’s because there was no such movie — although perhaps there should have been. Betty Pack was a real-life character sidelined by history, an affluent wife and mother who became an espionage agent, a sultry and successful woman, who was denigrated for using her sexuality to prevail.
Instead of a romantic, high-gloss movie that never was, witness Betty coming to life in Rubicon, a world premiere written by Kirsten Potter and directed by Chris Coleman, Artistic Director of the Denver Center Theatre Company.
At its core the play is about “the cost of purpose,” Coleman said.
“It’s about a woman who comes from immense privilege and doesn’t really have a sense of purpose at the outset. She was kind of wandering through her life…. She discovers both a sense of excitement and purpose when she fumbles her way into the world of espionage and realizes that she has a real gift for it.”
Not that the art of seduction was admired in a well-bred Minnesota daughter of a U.S. Marine Corps officer. She went on to be called “the ultimate honey trap,” as she worked for both British and American intelligence outfits. It was not necessarily a compliment.
“I think she was ahead of her time, and the system she was working in didn’t know what to do with her,” Coleman said. “A woman with the kind of sexual autonomy that she had was outside the realm of understanding or acceptability of that world.
“In the play, it’s crushing.”
Betty’s comfort with her function as a Mata Hari, trading sex for secrets, was clearly outside the norm.
“It’s the heritage of our culture, isn’t it?” Coleman said. “Who gets to use their sexuality however they want to, whose sexuality has to be tightly contained? That’s so old in our culture, even when it’s being commandeered and deployed for a greater good, it still makes people uncomfortable that a woman has that much control and is actually not apologetic about it.”
It shouldn’t spoil the action for audiences to know that the five cast members worked with an intimacy choreographer. Samatha Egle, who previously worked on Rattlesnake Kate, Hotter Than Egypt, A Little Night Music and Much Ado About Nothing, is “a really valued collaborator,” Coleman said.
She choreographs the sex scenes as one would a fight or a dance. “She will say ‘talk to me about this kiss, what’s the flavor? A two-count, a five-count?’ I really appreciate it. It takes any kind of awkwardness out of my hands.”
A celebration of this unsung hero is overdue. There are books about Betty but you are forgiven for never having heard of her. Neither had the director. “I love forgotten history,” he said.
Betty was a force of nature. “She clearly was an adrenaline junkie. Situations most of us would feel terrified by and run from, she ran right straight into. Even before she’d actually been recruited. You could justify it by saying she was going to help out her imprisoned lover, but it’s more than that. She just found it exciting.”
Coleman laughed at the idea of ’40s film star Bacall playing Betty in a glamorous black-and-white film version of the story. “The actress we cast sounds a little like Lauren Bacall…. It’s hard for the play not to be glamorous, given the period and settings. From a ball at the embassy in Santiago to meeting rooms in Madrid…’ It’s a fancy world.”
The famous Enigma machine — used by the Germans to encrypt and decrypt messages — provides a pivotal plot point for the play. A boundary-breaker but not a code-breaker herself, Betty managed to steal the Vichy Papers in an elaborate scheme that helped the Allied landing in North Africa in 1942.
“Getting the Naval codes from the Vichy French embassy was going to give the allies an advantage that could turn the tide of the war,” Coleman said.
For Betty, “it was all intuition, she definitely was interested in older powerful men, both romantically but also they were of interest to her as a human.”
Appraising the character, Coleman said was reminded of Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson. Betty’s talent was “like LBJ’s uncanny ability to sense what an older powerful man needed from a mentee, that built entree for him and a power base for him that he utilized to great effect. Betty had s similar sense of how to endear herself to people in power, whether she slept with them or not, to get them to say ‘yes’ to her…”
And what of her personal Rubicon? Her point of no return? “I think it’s nice if it’s left as a question mark for the audience,” Coleman demurred.
The playwright always imagined the set for her play’s production as a puzzle box, Coleman said. “It feels like it’s filled with surprises that reveal themselves in ways you don’t expect.” Designer Tony Cisek came up with “a solution that feels sleek, elegant and surprising.”
The resulting set will be “beautiful but very simple,” Coleman promised, “with some magic tricks that let it transform very elegantly.” Rather than fussy furniture, audiences will be transported via simple devices like a sound cue or a chandelier.
“It will be very cinematic,” Coleman said.
Feb 9-Mar 10, 2024