Review: Calpurnia Descending (Sisters Grimm / Sydney Theatre Company)

sistersgrimmVenue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Oct 9 – Nov 8, 2014
Playwright: Ash Flanders, Declan Greene
Director: Declan Greene
Cast: Paul Capsis, Ash Flanders, Sandy Gore, Peter Paltos
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Calpurnia Descending borrows heavily from the 1950 Hollywood films, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. With an exploration into the evolution of show business and media, we observe that artifice and female rivalry persist as dominating themes that shape our consumption of popular culture through the years. Ash Flanders and Declan Greene’s script is a decadent high camp romp that exercises its creators’ eccentric and original vision, with a resulting beast that is more about heresy and iconoclasm than it is about entertainment or storytelling. In spite of its meaningful central ideas, the work does not aim to deliver poignancy but is interested instead, in unusual perspectives of theatre and innovative modes of experiencing live performance.

Half of the show is seen on a cinema sized screen. We can hear sounds from the live action emanating from behind the projection, so we know that the actors are creating the show in real time, but the significant length of the filmic portion means that it feels strangely close to being at the movies. It is understandable that Greene, as director, chooses the video format to discuss our obsession with screens big and small, but placing the production in a theatrical context is a curious decision, given the obvious affiliation with film and its possibilities. Nevertheless, Greene’s work is vibrant, colourful and thoroughly quirky, often with an air of vaudeville permeating the atmosphere. He is sensitive to energy levels, and although the show’s sense of humour is specific, he maintains a pace that is tight and lively, ensuring an amusing experience for most audiences.

Paul Capsis does his best Norma Desmond in the role of Beverly Dumont, a star of the Broadway stage poised to make a sensational comeback at the ten-year anniversary of her misreported death. Capsis brings a drama and grandiosity that the part requires, along with excellent comic timing and a gripping presence. The role is simple, but the actor’s work is beautifully complex, adding gravitas to something that is determined to revel in its silliness. Calpurnia Descending‘s version of Eve Harrington is the duplicitous Violet St Clair, played with mischievous exuberance by Flanders whose wide range of camp extends from delightful to macabre. The actors form a strong and balanced team in their portrayal of a malevolent sisterhood, but not much is made of the inevasible drag element. There is no obvious commentary that arises from the casting of male performers, and the production would not present too differently without it, so perhaps a point is made about the irrelevance of gender in the narratives we weave.

At a time when some of us can spend virtually every waking moment in front of a screen of some description, the production should be able to provide some resonance with its interest in the way we relate to mass media and its celebrities, but its preoccupation with depicting shallowness prevents us from connecting in an authentic way. Be that as it may, the show is memorable for being adventurous and rich with original thought, and it is the artists who dare to push the boundaries that we must value the most.

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