Calamity review (Southbank theatre, Melbourne)

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Yes, it’s a calamity, but not the good kind, not the kind on which theatre thrives, a noisy, blazing failure, massive and significant, that points the way to what is possible and untried. Rather, the latest show in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Neon Festival of Independent Theatre is a murmuring disappointment, a cold calamity, an undernourished flop that disappears back into the darkness of its incomprehensible beginning before it has ever completely emerged.

It’s only a very short production, just under 70 minutes, but Zoey Dawson and Romanie Harper’s Calamity is so cut-up and obscure and oddly-made that it’s difficult to give an sense of how it all fits together, or doesn’t.

Dawson opens the show with a sort of theatrical proem. When she was a child, she says, the 1953 Hollywood musical version of Calamity Jane was one of her favourite movies. Now she thinks it’s rubbish. The real Calamity Jane, we are assured, is far more interesting.

Debra Batton then steps forward and, cue cards in hand, delivers a nervy Toastmasters-style speech about what a complex and colourful life the legendary gun-slinging, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, horse-riding frontierswoman led.

Then there’s some mute cowgirl clowning by Batton, a lip-synched performance of Doris Day’s The Windy City, and 11-year-old Ivy Miller humming “Que Sera, Sera” while sitting on a horse made from a 44 gallon drum and a gumboot. Some of this is interesting, incipiently, but there’s no energy or enthusiasm, nothing to hold it all together, to lead one scene into the next. Nothing here evokes strong or involving feelings, and the significance of each scene remains elusive. The extensive lip-synching is particularly baffling. Is some difficult point being made about performative repetition, or this only because the actors couldn’t learn their lines?

Designer Romanie Harper has set the stage like a Wild West playground, with three small wooden shacks toward the back of the stage behind an open yard covered in a thick layer of tanbark. Life-size cardboard cut-out figures of Doris Day are stationed like sentries in front of the shacks. It’s elaborate, full of detail, but lacking a sense of atmosphere. What sort of place is this Wild West? Where is it, emotionally, politically? Emma Valente’s lighting struggles to give definition to the dramatic space, and the whole ensemble feels rather sad and gloomy.

And somehow the smallness of the three houses reflects on the smallness of the ideas behind the work, as if the whole thing were a munchkin history.

For instance, the opposition that Calamity proposes between a true Calamity Jane and a Hollywood Calamity Jane seems like pretty callow stuff. Can we ever know the real Calamity? Surely the most attractive thing about her is her mystery? There are so few verifiable facts and so many legends. The so-called “real” Calamity which Dawson shows us here — a strong, independent woman — is just another myth. And it’s not even a very interesting myth — certainly not as interesting, unsettling, inspiring or radical as the versions of Calamity Jane to be found in Hollywood movies like Buffalo Girls (1995) and Wild Bill (1995) or the HBO series Deadwood.

And really, it’s not even as interesting as the Doris Day version, which, seen with modern eyes, is full of ambiguity and complexity. For a work that is so caught up in gender construction and commodification, this Calamity is curiously blind to the persistence of a disruptive camp subtext beneath the original movie’s Hollywood plotting.

And why should we get so worked up about Doris Day’s cowgirl turn in the first place? The film is more than 60 years old, and its contemporary resonances, beyond nostalgia value, are not immediately obvious. There is very little in this play on how Doris Day’s cultural authority operates in contemporary discourse. In what ways does she influence the stories that we tell about our bodies and our identities today?

Debra Batton — who has spent many years wrangling performers for Circus Oz — is engaging as the clown of the piece. And the scene where Batton and Dawson play out a nightmare encounter between a school girl and a violent old cowgirl-cum-celebrity has something like the right sort of vigour. The “real” Calamity Jane here threatens to do away with the vapid Hollywood poppet, but with the surreal twist that both of them are called Zoe Dawson, as if this were a confrontation between different aspects of Dawson’s character.

Dawson announces in her introduction that the child of the cast — Ivy Miller –“represents innocence”. When the adults threaten to kill off Hollywood glamour once and for all, she is on hand to quietly accuse.

The show also has a very slickly made mockumentary as a sort of intermission that charts Zoe Dawson’s rise to international stardom. It’s very funny — and very cliquey –but what is it telling us about modern mythmaking? The real Calamity Jane was notorious for her tall stories and exaggerating her exploits. She even performed in fictional plays about herself. Is Dawson indulging, albeit ironically, a similar desire?

Then it all comes to an abrupt halt with an appeal to feminist solidarity by way of an audience sing-a-long. I think I would have been more sympathetic to Calamity if Dawson and Harper had spoken in a more direct and personal way about the tension between wanting to be both glamorous and authentic, and how a character like Doris Day’s Calamity Jane exacerbates that. Instead, they attempt a discombobulating blend of performance styles, a kind of spectacle-theatre for which they apparently have little natural gift.

While the project no doubt began in a sincere desire to celebrate the independent-minded Calamity Jane, it ultimately comes off as something less than honest. As Calamity would say, I got a strange feelin’ that someone is bein’ hustled.

[box]Calamity is at the MTC’s Southbank Theatre until June 7 [/box]

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