Calpurnia Descending review (Wharf 2 Theatre, Sydney)

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Ash Flanders and Declan Greene (who together are Sisters Grimm, the reigning queens of trash/DIY/indie/queer/pop/drag theatre) have become known, over the last few years, as two of the most subversive, insightful and hilarious theatre-makers in the country. Their plays borrow from centuries of popular culture, turn an audience’s perception on its head and slip cultural commentary into the mix more smoothly than a dash of Vermouth goes into a Manhattan. The Sisters’ brand is irresistibly broad, bawdy melodrama that beats you over the head with volume and vibrance to the point that you can’t help but get carried away. And if your tastebuds aren’t accustomed to picking out that subtle dash of something slightly more substantial, there’s plenty of colour and flavour to keep you entertained.

Their newest work Calpurnia Descending sticks to their winning formula, but is a particularly tough piece — it’s more frantic and wildly dangerous than their previous offerings, and follows some fairly obscure trails of references and thoughts. It occasionally falters in its pacing and tone, but the impact is undeniable.

Beverly Dumont (Paul Capsis) is a faded Broadway legend who has been exiled to her New York apartment with her PA Tootles (Sandy Gore) for the last ten years. In 1939, a small town girl with clear promise Violet St Clair (Ash Flanders) stumbles in upon Dumont. Soon enough, Violet brings a big Broadway producer Max Silvestri (Gore, again) and his director (Peter Paltos) up to meet Dumont, who the world believed was dead. A plan is then set in motion to have Dumont return to the stage in a new play all about Julius Caesar’s young, beautiful wife Calpurnia, but Max and Violet have their own ambitions.

At first, it’s almost a composite parody of All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with its feuding divas (and there are plenty of visual and dialogue references to those films). But when a white scrim falls (after a technical hiccup stalled the opening night show for several minutes), covering the entire stage, the action hurtles violently into a new mode of storytelling. With projections (Matthew Gingold is AV designer and Matthew Greenwood serves as animator), we move from the world of Bette Davis to that of Joan Collins in Dynasty to one where the fast speeds of a Belkin router make it possible to connect and access content in nanoseconds. The animations, spliced with green-screen footage shot live, whirl and whirl and become more and more colourful. How can Beverly possibly stand strong as the tsunami of culture comes rolling towards her?  

Many of the intricate narrative threads established in the opening scenes don’t come together — rather appropriately — as everything descends into a brave new world. The neatly plotted Sisters Grimm melodrama is thrown out the window for something more impressionistic. There’s almost a sense of grief when the audience realises the play won’t stick to the rules and deliver on expectations — but you can’t, as the saying goes, stop progress.

David Fleischer’s designs are superb — his eclectic costumes are as flashy and grotesque as the piece demands, particularly his looks for Capsis. He has framed the entire set with a classic Art Deco cinema-inspired proscenium, treading the high-low divide perfectly.

On a micro level, Calpurnia Descending is mainly about the evolution of, and generational tension within, queer communities, viewed through the prism of diva worship. Amongst gay men, in particular, diva worship is a phenomenon that’s impossible to explain (although many have tried), and here it represents a common, unifying language that’s evolved and, largely, been lost. As gay men have stepped out of the closet over the last several decades, what’s the value of the “gay community”? Is it even still a relevant notion? In her final monologue, Beverly mourns the loss of a particular culture and way of life. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching.

But if none of that speaks to you or your experiences (and I’m sure there’ll be many in the audience for whom that’s the case) it tells a broader story of cultural evolution and commercialisation, and sets up an enthralling battle between cultural ideals and performance styles. There are the big, bold, focussed visions of the Hollywood icons of the 1930s — a Swanson-esque recline — up against the commercial, busy, over-saturated images of the pop icons of today — as overwhelming and and over-worked as a Katy Perry video. And who could better play that out than Capsis and Flanders, who superbly represent two generations of queer performers?

Flanders plays the not-so-innocent ingenue perfectly, bringing the extremes of her ambitions to the fore with superb comedic timing. She represents everything that Beverly can no longer be — instantaneously endearing and seductive.

He’s ably supported by Sandy Gore, who plays the Broadway producer archetype hilariously with plenty of masculine flair, and Peter Paltos, who is the wide-eyed director just waiting to be led around by the power of the diva.

But the show belongs to Capsis, who gives a glorious performance as the vulture-like, faded diva — delivering an arch physical and vocal performance only matched by his extreme, pencilled eyebrows. There’s always gravity behind his playfulness, and it’s informed by his extensive knowledge and experience in a fast-moving theatrical world. He slips into the Sisters Grimm narrative beautifully — it’s a match made in gay heaven.

Calpurnia Descending is at the Wharf 2 Theatre, Sydney until 8 November, before moving to Melbourne’s Malthouse from 13 November.

Featured image by Brett Boardman.

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