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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Pinocchio; The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Sydney Opera House is presenting two children’s shows for the school holidays: Windmill Theatre’s Pinocchio and CDP Theatre Producers’ The Incredible Book Eating Boy. And with one end of the western foyer converted to a play area, it’s a lively place for families to be.

Pinocchio

Drama Theatre, April 13

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O'Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O’Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Acclaimed Adelaide company Windmill Theatre, which makes adventurous shows for children, is in Sydney with its 2012 musical production of Pinocchio, presented by the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Theatre Company.

Based on Carlo Collodi’s book about the wooden boy who longs to become real, director Rosemary Myers and writer Julianne O’Brien have created a version that combines a dark fairytale feel with a fun modern edge.

It begins unexpectedly with a blue-haired girl crashing her motorbike into the tree from which Pinocchio will be carved (an underdeveloped take on the blue fairy, who we don’t see again until the second act).

Then we’re into familiar territory with the tale of the naughty, easily led Pinocchio who is lured away from his maker/father the lonely toymaker Geppetto by the evil Stromboli. After a series of frightening adventures, Pinocchio returns home to Geppetto with love in his heart.

With one section set in the reality TV-like Stromboliland, Windmill’s production is more of a cautionary tale about greed and the lure of celebrity, while raising questions about what is real, rather than about simply telling the truth.

It’s cleverly staged around a large, flexible tree trunk on a revolving stage (designed by Jonathon Oxlade) onto which images are projected. The most charming effects, however, are the simpler theatrical ones – the way Geppeto carves Pinocchio, the way Pinocchio’s nose grows.

There are excellent performances across the board. Nathan O’Keefe uses his lanky frame brilliantly as a larky, willful Pinocchio, Alirio Zavarce is touching as the soft-hearted, clown-like Geppetto, Paul Capsis is a deliciously wicked Stromboli, Jude Henshall and Luke Joslin are very funny as roving wannabes Kitty Poo and Foxy, Danielle Catanzariti is suitably ethereal as Blue Girl and Oxlade is delightfully whimsical as the cricket (for which he uses a puppet).

Pinocchio runs around two hours including interval. For all its colourful treatment, it’s a fairly dark show (as is Collodi’s original story) and younger children could be frightened. It’s recommended for ages 7+.

Jethro Woodward’s songs have an energetic rock vibe but I’m not sure they are pitched at children and some of the humour didn’t land with youngsters around me. Others clearly loved it, however, and the show got a rousing response at the end.

Pinocchio runs until May 4. Bookings: sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 20

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Playhouse Theatre, April 13

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

For the littlies (aged 3+) the Opera House is presenting CDP Theatre Producers’ stage adaptation of Oliver Jeffers’ best-selling picture book The Incredible Book Eating Boy.

Henry loves books – well, eating them anyway. The more he eats, the smarter he gets and so his appetite for the printed word grows and grows. But that many books are hard to digest. When he starts to feel ill and begins muddling up all the information he has consumed, he has to stop. Eventually, a sad Henry picks up one of his half-eaten books and begins to read it and falls in love with books afresh.

Writer Maryam Master fleshes out the story with an opening nightmare and more about Henry’s family and cat, most of which works well though the extended cat poo joke feels overdone and gratuitous – in fact, it made me feel a bit sick. By the time Henry began regurgitating books, I was feeling almost as queasy as him.

Directed by Frank Newman, the production is beautifully staged. Andrea Espinoza’s lovely set and costumes have the look of a picture book while cleverly incorporating books into every aspect of the stage design.

The cast of three – Gabriel Fancourt as Henry with Madeleine Jones and Jo Turner playing several roles – are all very good, creating characters the young audience can relate to.

The message that it’s better to read books than chow down on them is a quirky way to inspire children. The production would benefit from a little more dramatic magic at the end when Henry finally discovers the joy of reading to underline how exciting books can be. As it is, he just smiles, so it’s the images of eating and vomiting books that we remember.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy runs until April 27. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

Nick’s Bar

Nick Enright

Nick Enright

Sydney will soon have a theatre named after Nancye Hayes (the former Darlinghurst Theatre). Now, it has a theatre bar named after the late, much-missed Australian playwright Nick Enright.

Last night, Darlinghurst Theatre Company and the Enright family hosted a wonderful event in the foyer at the newly opened Eternity Playhouse where friends and colleagues of Enright’s, including Nancye Hayes, gathered to celebrate the news that the foyer bar will be known as Nick’s Bar.

Enright’s brother Ian also announced that, over the next three years, the Enright family is supporting Darlinghurst Theatre Company to produce three plays by the renowned Australian playwright, starting with Daylight Saving in 2014.

Enright, who died in 2003 at age 52 of a melanoma, was a dearly loved man of the theatre. A prolific writer for film, television and the stage, he was also an actor, director and teacher who was Head of Acting at NIDA between 1983 and 1984.

His playwriting credits include On the Wallaby, Daylight Saving, St James Infirmary, Mongrels, A Property of the Clan, The Quartet from Rigoletto, Blackrock, Good Works, Spurboard and A Man with Five Children. Together with Justin Monjo he also adapted Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet for the stage.

He wrote the book and lyrics for many musicals including The Venetian Twins, Variations and Summer Rain with composer Terrence Clarke; The Betrothed, Mary Bryant and The Good Fight with David King; and Miracle City with Max Lambert. He also wrote the book for The Boy From Oz, which went on to become a hit on Broadway.

Enright co-wrote the screenplay for Lorenzo’s Oil, which earned him an Academy Award nomination.

Last night’s event included performances and talks by friends of Enright’s who remembered a man who was warm and witty, wrote comedy and lyrics with effortless ease, and was also a great mentor to many young artists. David Marr (who runs Enright’s estate with Ian Enright) also recalled the playwright’s “ferocious” but insightful editing of his biography of Patrick White.

Enright wasn’t a great drinker himself, said Marr, but understood that red wine and conversation go together so the naming of a bar after him was an apt tribute.

Marr was the MC – a role he said that we didn’t need (given that everyone in the room knew each other) but had to have because Enright loved the formalities of the theatre.

Genevieve Lemon opened the show with “I’ll Hold On” from Miracle City – a heart-breakingly beautiful song, beautifully sung, bringing back great memories of the show, which surely deserves to be seen again soon.

Lynne Pierse and Doug Hansell performed “Love Has Lousy Timing” from the first version of Summer Rain, which was subsequently cut from the show, Paul Capsis sang Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”, Jay James-Moody gave us the ever-popular comedy number Jindyworoback from The Venetian Twins with composer Terry Clarke at the piano and Tony Sheldon brought the night to a moving end with “If I Don’t Have You” from Variations (recently given a concert performance by Neglected Musicals).

Sandy Gore did the honours in officially opening “Nick’s Bar”. During a lively, touching speech she revealed that Enright had been so frustrated and depressed at his plays not being picked up and staged that he vowed that he would stop playwriting if Daylight Saving (which he wrote for her in 1989 after Marr suggested he tackled a comedy) was not a success – and she believed him. Happily it sold out and Enright’s career took off.

Mark Kilmurry directs Daylight Saving for the Darlo next year (October 30 – November 30).

“If you need any assistance on the mother, it’s my mother and I can tell you how it’s done,” said Marr.

Hopefully, Daylight Saving is just the first of many Enright revivals to come.

Marr also paid tribute to remarkable Sydney pop artist Martin Sharp who died on Sunday. The Eternity Playhouse is named after Arthur Stace who famously chalked the word “Eternity” on Sydney’s pavements for 30 years after hearing a sermon at the Burton Street Tabernacle now converted into the theatre. Sharp included the word in several works including his 1977 poster Eternity Haymarket! and also illuminated it on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for the New Year’s Eve celebrations leading into 2000.