When I saw Sisters Grimm perform ‘Little Mercy’ last year, I thought it was brilliant. Their ‘Summertime in the Garden of Eden’ at Griffin- terrific. So I eagerly awaited ‘Calpurnia Descending’, currently playing in Wharf 2 at the Sydney Theatre Company and no one was more surprised than me as I sat agape for the first fifteen minutes wondering if the parody inherent in their ‘gay DIY drag-theatre’ was now a (very pretty) pony that I have seen ride around the stadium one too many times.
The play deals with the reappearance of the once thought dead Beverly Dumont (Paul Capsis) by young and hopeful starlet/telegram girl, Violet St Clair (Ash Flanders). It quickly captures an era of a late 1930’s New York kind of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis rivalry as the ‘ladies’ fight for the attention of director (Peter Paltos) and the starring role in a play about the women of Julius Caesar, aptly named Calpurnia Descending. And no Broadway show is complete without producer, Max Sylvestri (Sandy Gore), debt-ridden and desperate and some intrigue about the fate of the show.
There were times it was genuinely entertaining and times when ‘Calpurnia Descending’ felt distinctly clunkish. As a live action theatre show, it doesn’t quite work. The ham-acting has a short shelf-life and after the establishment of plot and character, you wonder what else it has in the tank. And then the emergence of a giant dancing rat telling people to ‘stay in school’…well, ‘you dirty rat’ is the closest I can come to trying to explain that. But then through use of live action film, ala Hollywood black and white movies, broadcast onto the scrim for us whilst the real action is happening behind the curtain, the play literally takes off.
‘Calpurnia Descending’ works as a film in the environment of live theatre. It’s a strange contradiction in terms, to sit in a theatre and watch the action, hidden from view, unfold as a live video feed. The acting conventions of the Sisters Grimm are perfect for this- hysterical hyper-realism, melodramatic mayhem.
Ash Flanders is exceptional at drag. Hedda Gabler he ain’t but frocked-up-innocent-scream-queen, that’s his forte. I found Flanders the strongest thing about the show but Gore’s Sylvestri was also very good. Paltos plays the romantic interest with great awe and energy and Paul Capsis ran hot and cold for me. His classic drag skill is indisputable but maybe I just prefer more fish than fierce (oh I feel so RuPaul just saying that). I think you either love Capsis or perhaps his work doesn’t sit well with you. It’s drag on steroids and I could drive a truck through the gaps in dialogue and high drama so I think I just prefer the subtlety of Flanders in this regard. However, once we hit the film portion of the night, Capsis comes into his own and he drives that truck all the way to the end. He’s not afraid of the grotesque and for that I am grateful, even if I don’t always love it.
Jed Palmer’s sound design is exceptional in creating life beyond the screen and capturing the atmosphere of the parody of place and genre and Matthew Greenwood’s animation with Matthew Gingold’s design provides a lovely blend of contemporary commercialism with old world horror.