Summertime in the Garden of Eden

SBW Stables Theatre, November 22

Agent Cleave and Bessie Holland. Photo: Marg Horwell

Agent Cleave and Bessie Holland. Photo: Marg Horwell

The life-sized horse in the foyer, with a crochet blanket skin and a mane of plastic flowers, is just a taster for what’s to come inside the theatre.

There, Marg Horwell’s dizzily colourful set  – with hanging baskets of iridescent flowers, a spouting golden statue fountain, a cane chair covered in crotchet and adorned with knitted toys, and mountains of cotton wool on the floor – is the perfect setting for Sisters Grimm’s gloriously camp, gothic melodrama Summertime in the Garden of Eden.

Sisters Grimm are a self-styled “queer DIY” theatre group formed by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene in 2006 in Melbourne, where they have built a cult following.

They were first seen in Sydney earlier this year, when Sydney Theatre Company presented their 2010 show Little Mercy, which put a trademark gender-bending spin on a film genre. In the case of Little Mercy, it was the “evil child” movie, with Flanders giving a dazzling performance as the bored, alcoholic wife of a musical theatre director with everything except offspring.

Now comes Summertime in the Garden of Eden, presented in association with Melbourne’s Theatre Works as part of Griffin Independent.

First staged last year in a shed in the Melbourne suburb of Thornbury, the current, reworked production arrives direct from a hugely successful season at Theatre Works.

Co-written by Flanders and Greene, and directed by Greene, Summertime draws on the Southern antebellum sweeping epic, notably films like Gone with the Wind and Jezebel, while the repression of desire and family secrets, as well as the onset of madness, is also reminiscent of Tennessee Williams plays Suddenly, Last Summer and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Flanders doesn’t appear this time – though the eagle-eyed may spot a frocked-up portrait of him on the wall as part of the Summertime set design.

Set in 1861 in the Deep South during the American Civil War, Summertime tells the tale of the Washington family: plantation owner Big Daddy and his daughters Honey Sue and Daisy May.

The cross-gender casting sees Bessie Holland as Big Daddy, while Melbourne drag artists Agent Cleave and Olympia Bukkakis don the crinolines as his daughters.

It begins with the homecoming of Honey Sue, who hasn’t been seen since she ran away 10 years ago on the night of her 16th birthday party. It’s clear she is much changed. What was it that happened in Big Daddy’s greenhouse (the so-called Garden of Eden) to make her flee on that fateful night? Where has she been since then and why is she back now?

Waiting at home with Big Daddy is her younger sister Daisy May, recently engaged to the dashing Clive O’Donnell (Peter Paltos). Naturally enough, everything is not as it seems, with revelations aplenty.

Though Summertime is as camp as Chloe, the production is precisely pitched, walking a knife-edge but never tripping over it and going too far over the top. For all the outrageous fun, the performances are played with enough honesty that the production stops short of becoming a drag show – even though it allows for Olympia Bukkakis to include a drag number.

Making an unforgettable entrance, Agent Cleave is entrancing as Daisy May. With his own long, thick hair flowing, he makes an incredibly beautiful southern belle, even with a beard, tattoos and sneakers, his every gesture convincingly demure and girlish – until pushed.

Olympia Bukkakis has all the right mannerisms as the worldly-wise, diva-like Honey Sue, Holland brings a Colonel Sanders-like gruffness to Big Daddy, and Paltos negotiates the plot’s twists and turns with charm and gusto.

Genevieve Giuffre makes up the cast, giving a hilarious performance as the family slave Mammy, with Giuffre manipulating a golliwog doll held in front of her, which makes you wince even as you laugh.

You have to suspend your disbelief more than a little with one of the final revelations in particular but fiddle-dee-dee. Beneath all the outrageous frivolity and tongue-in-cheek fun, there are serious political themes about gender, sexual power, race. privilege and prejudice. There’s even a touch of pathos at the end.

Running 65 minutes without interval, Summertime is as smart as it is fun. The high-camp, lo-fi aesthetic – complemented by Katie Sfetkidis’s lighting and Russell Goldsmith’s sound – is a blast of fresh air from young, audacious theatre-makers who are clearly going places, with political points to make while presenting ridiculously enjoyable shows.

Summertime in the Garden of Eden plays at the SBW Stables Theatre until December 14. Bookings 02 9361 3817 or http://www.griffintheatre.com.au

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