Summertime in the Garden of Eden

Stage

Summertime in the Garden of Eden theatre review (Theatre Works, Melbourne)

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Summertime in the Garden of Eden has now ended its Melbourne season, and plays Sydney’s SBW Stables Theatre from 20 November to 14 December.
Melbourne-based cult theatremakers Sisters Grimm (Ash Flanders and Declan Greene) have a very specific aesthetic. Sprawling. From the moment the audience enters Theatre Works for Summertime in the Garden of Eden, the space is stuffed with cultural clashes – neons, intricate golden fountains, mountains of cotton wool, booming hip-hop and more macramé than you’d find at a 1970s craft fair. It might seem a bit of a muddle, but this is what Sisters Grimm do best – they draw together seemingly disparate elements to make beautifully constructed, lean, but ambitiously wide-ranging theatre.
Summertime takes its cues from Civil War dramas (most obviously, Gone With the Wind) and takes place in Georgia in the throes of the conflictIt’s melodrama of the highest order, and like all good melodramas, starts with a mystery. Honey Sue (Olympia Bukkakis) returns to the family plantation after an unexplained absence of 10 years. She’s welcomed back with open arms by Big Daddy (Bessie Holland), but her younger, newly-engaged sister Daisy Mae (Agent Cleave) is a little more trepidatious. It soon becomes clear that Honey Sue is not the same girl who left in the dead of night all those years ago. What happened to her?
The performances are exemplary and director Declan Greene’s attention to detail in every moment of the production is unparalleled. The word ‘hilarious’ is bandied about all too often when talking about comedies, but the writing, the performances, and the technique with which every line is delivered truly earn that label.
As the two sisters at the centre of the action, Olympia Bukkakis and Agent Cleave are perfect Southern Belles. They are gentle, but powerful, and their scenes together are fantastic. There’s a touch of Streetcar’s Blanche and Stella, a hint of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Their relationship is held together by the thinnest of threads, and it tears apart beautifully. Of course, underneath all the tulle and bodices, they’re wearing sneakers, and they’re men. This is gender-bending, but not for cheap gags (although there’s a great laugh in a “beautiful full-grown woman with a beautiful full-grown beard” line).
Bessie Holland’s Big Daddy is a monstrous, Colonel Sanders-inspired creation, and she completely inhabits the paternal role. As is the case with the sisters, we’re always aware that we’re watching a woman playing a man – her long blonde hair is simply held back in a ponytail.
Marg Horwell’s set and costumes combine Southern glamour and sophistication with the garishly bright and colourful. Everything is so pretty, it’s almost sickening. Russell Goldsmith’s sound design insinuates much about these characters in quieter moments, and whacks you over the head with excitement in others. The lighting by Katie Sfetkidis makes the poignant moments intimate, but turns the broader moments into camp extravaganza.
Sisters Grimm tread the line between the frivolous and the furiously political better than anybody making theatre in Australia right now. Their world is one where Savage Garden can sneak its way into Civil War drama, where pop culture collides, and becomes a statement greater than the sum of its parts. They tackle gender, race, and sexuality head-on, and explode prejudice. There’s no sense anybody is lightly tip-toeing around anything here.
There’s something heartbreaking in Summertime. Without revealing too much of what goes on, because the thrills come in the twists and turns, every character is permanently, and irretrievably damaged by somebody else’s ambition, or somebody’s expectations. It is a comedy, in every conceivable way, but like all great comedies, there’s a little tragedy beating deep in the heart of Summertime.
I do declare, Summertime in the Garden of Eden is a remarkable piece of theatre.
That’s what we thought. Read what the other critics say.
[box]Summertime in the Garden of Eden has now closed at Theatre Works, and plays Sydney’s SBW Stables Theatre from 20 November to 14 December. Tickets are available via Griffin Theatre [/box]

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