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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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