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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Hedda Gabler

Belvoir St Theatre, July 2

Oscar Redding and Ash Flanders. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Oscar Redding and Ash Flanders. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

At the end of Belvoir’s new production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler you come out thinking why? Why to many things in the production, but most particularly why cast a man in the title role?

Written in 1890, Hedda Gabler is one of the great dramatic female roles. There are few enough of them to begin with. What’s more, she is a strong woman feeling so trapped by a repressive, male-dominated society and unfulfilled marriage that she eventually finds herself in a situation where she believes the only escape is suicide.

A production needs to offer a fresh, compelling insight to justify casting a man in the role – and we don’t get that here.

Naturally, there has been a huge amount of interest and coverage around the decision by director Adena Jacobs to cast Ash Flanders as Hedda. Flanders is a co-founder of Melbourne’s queer indie theatre group Sisters Grimm, which has gone from cult following to a mainstream presence.

I saw Flanders play a glamorous, alcoholic housewife in Little Mercy, Sisters Grimm’s send-up of the “evil child” movies. He did it brilliantly. His performance was poised, very funny and believable within the camp, spoofy world they set up.

However, take him out of that world where he has so much flair and he doesn’t look quite so convincing – not on the basis of the choices made in this production anyway.

In interviews, Jacobs has said that casting Flanders “frames the crisis of Hedda Gabler as one of identity, and the problems of difference, rather than solely one woman’s drama.”

Flanders has said he’s “playing Hedda as written, as a person first, then as a woman and below that is the male actor. Adena has been saying you will forget that you are watching a man but at the same time there are moments that we can bring that to the forefront and it becomes something different altogether, hopefully something that is post-gender. Because I think Hedda is almost beyond gender, she is almost a mythical creature.”

With his own hair and a little make-up Flanders (who spends much of the production in a swimsuit) looks somewhat androgynous but you never forget that he is a man. There are a couple of moments when he briefly dons a long wig only to quickly toss it aside again. There are titters in the audience at the mention of a possible pregnancy.

At one point he stands naked. It’s a somewhat confusing image given the flat male chest but female genitalia (‘tuck job’ presumably) leading you to question exactly who he/she is supposed to be. Jacobs presumably presents this image of Hedda as both man and woman to underline the universal nature nature of her situation – as one of difference rather than solely a woman’s dilemma, as she articulated – but that sense of universality didn’t resonate for me in the production.

Clearly there’s no point in Flanders playing a woman so convincingly that we think he is one. You might as well cast a woman. But his performance doesn’t transcend the novelty of the casting or lend any fresh insight to the play.

His Hedda moves and speaks at one pace. She is forever observing or talking with a quiet, cold detachment, while posing languidly. Instead of the mass of paradoxes and emotional complexity usually associated with her, his Hedda feels flat and one-dimensional. Even when she plays with the pistol or guns down people in a violent video game, it’s done without any display of emotion. We never see any vulnerability, she just comes across as icily manipulative. Hedda may be bored, but she shouldn’t be boring and she comes perilously close to that here. It’s hard to see quite why all the men around her are in her thrall.

What’s more, there is precious little chemistry or tension between Flanders and any of the other actors – all of whom seem to be wrestling with characters that feel underwritten in Jacobs’ adaptation.

Marcus Graham is the most compelling as Judge Brack, played here as a suave, louche playboy, while Tim Walter’s Tesman is a bland, ineffectual, anxious figure. Oscar Redding fires things up briefly as Lovborg, and Anna Houston as Thea Elvstead and Lynette Curran as Aunt Julie bring some warmth to the production. But none of the cast seems really comfortable and you don’t feel anything for any of them.

Ash Flanders, Lynette Curran and Branden Christine. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Ash Flanders, Lynette Curran and Branden Christine. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Jacobs’s decision to set the production in a contemporary world is a bit hit and miss.

Entering the theatre there is a strong sense of déjà vu. The set (by Dayna Morrissey) features the interior of a spanking new, soulless house at the back of the stage. Seen through sliding glass doors, it’s reminiscent of Ralph Myers’s set for Benedict Andrews’s The Seagull (along with any number of other glass boxes seen on Sydney stages in recent years). In front of the house is a small swimming pool. A large, flash, vintage car sits to one side of the stage, which inevitably brings Belvoir’s 2012 Death of a Salesman to mind.

There are sound issues whenever the actors are inside the house or in the car, with their amplified voices sounding muffled. In the car, it’s actually hard to understand some of what is said.

The production starts slowly in silence. A television inside the house shows a film featuring a wedding. (Hedda and Tesman are, of course, just back from their honeymoon). Hedda gazes from the window blankly then lies by the side of the pool with headphones on. The maid (Branden Christine) smokes a cigarette behind the car. Tesman arrives home sweating after a run. Not a word is spoken. It sets up the boredom of Hedda’s life – but from there you expect things to start to flare and they don’t.

Jacobs’s adaptation, which runs 90 minutes without interval, uses a lively contemporary idiom while sticking pretty faithfully to Ibsen’s plot (though the script has been ruthlessly pruned). By updating it, however, there are various paradoxes. In a world with television and smart phones wouldn’t Lovborg write his precious book on a computer rather than by hand?

So many things like this become distractions, from Hedda’s bare bottom beneath a short fur jacket to the maid taking a dip in the pool. Would Hedda really have let her maid do that without asking? And how come when Hedda locks Thea in the car, she’s desperate to get out but apparently sleeps through a vital conversation not long after being shut in?

The fact that you sit there asking yourself such questions when you should be immersed in the drama is indicative of how little the production engages. It’s a disappointing experience that seemed to promise so much, for whatever the success, or otherwise, of the gender politics at play, the production falls flat as a piece of drama.

Hedda Gabler is at Belvoir St Theatre until August 3

 

2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….

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