Calpurnia Descending

Wharf 2, October 11

Peter Paltos, Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders. Photo: Brett Boardman

Peter Paltos, Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders. Photo: Brett Boardman

Melbourne’s self-styled “gay DIY drag-theatre” group Sisters Grimm (Ash Flanders and Declan Greene) has made a name for itself subverting classic film genres to create hilarious, high camp stage comedies.

Last year, Sydney Theatre Company had a hit when it presented Little Mercy, which played with the tropes of the “evil child” horror film.

Now comes Calpurnia Descending, a Sisters Grimm production commissioned by STC and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, in which Flanders and Paul Capsis play rival divas. It sounds like a match made in heaven but Calpurnia Descending ends up feeling rather less than the sum of its parts.

It’s 1939. Aging, faded, Broadway legend Beverly Dumont (Capsis) is living as a recluse in a New York apartment with her sinister butler Tootles (Sandy Gore). But when a small-town, wannabe starlet called Violet St Clair (Flanders) comes across her by accident, Dumont agrees to make a dramatic return to the Broadway stage.

Dumont will star as Caesar’s third wife Calpurnia in a tragedy written by her late husband, while St Clair will play Cleopatra.

But will Beverly tolerate Violet when the director (Peter Paltos) is so obviously infatuated with her? And will the not-so-sweet ingénue be content in Beverly’s shadow?

Calpurnia Descending begins in familiar territory with echoes of iconic films like All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Then a screen covering the entire stage descends and the production turns filmic. Black and white footage shot live (and badly out of sync) transform the narrative – the rehearsal period – into an old movie. This then morphs into a manic, dizzily colourful, pre-recorded animation in which Beverly appears trapped in a nightmarish video clip or web page.

Where Norma Desmond was undone by the transition from silent films to the talkies, Miss Dumont will struggle to survive in the Internet era where pop stars are the new divas.

Beverly is a gift of a role for Capsis who made his name “channeling” divas as a cabaret performer, and he makes the most of it, playing her spotlight-craving, hard-drinking monstrousness to the hilt while still making her tragic. It’s a fine performance.

Ash Flanders,  Sandy Gore and Peter Paltos. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ash Flanders, Sandy Gore and Peter Paltos. Photo: Brett Boardman

Flanders conveys the ruthlessness beneath the sweet façade beautifully. The cross-gender casting also features Gore in nicely observed, amusing performances as Tootles and Broadway producer Max Silvestri who desperately needs a hit, while Paltos hits just the right note as the dashing, young, diva-struck director.

Calpurnia Descending is technically ambitious and cleverly designed (set and costumes by David Fleischer, AV by Matthew Gingold, animation by Matthew Greenwood, lighting by Katie Sfetkidis, sound by Jed Palmer). It’s also fun but the filmic element feels over-long and the plot twists become confusing.

Directed by Greene, the production goes beyond mere homage or parody but in the end what it’s trying to say isn’t clear. Some have read it as an exploration of the commercialisation of queer culture and appropriation of gay icons (think Katy Perry) but I’m not at all convinced that comes across.

Calpurnia Descending is at Wharf 2 until November 8

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 19

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