Malthouse: Calpurnia Descending

As Pennsylvania Avenue opened at the MTC, I know I wasn’t alone as I wondered why. But they’ve just announced extra performances, so I think we know the answer. Meanwhile, a couple blocks away at the Malthouse, Calpurnia Descending opened and restored the faith of us who wonder why mainstage shows like to be safe.

Calpurnia Descending, Ash Flanders and Paul Capsis. Photo by Brett Boardman
Calpurnia Descending, Ash Flanders and Paul Capsis. Photo by Brett Boardman

Calpurnia Descending has already had a run in Sydney, but this is the first time the locally-adored punk camp Sisters Grimm have had a main stage show in their home town.

And it has enough subversion, heart and guts to make up for Pennsylvania Avenue.

Like their maiden aunt at the MTC, Calpurnia Descending is also set in East Coast America, in New York, and also worships divas. Ash Flander’s American hometown gal is as sweet as Bernadette Robinson’s (but he’s prettier; he’s always prettier) and the Sisters knows that their Australian audience is likely to be better versed in popular US culture than by their own.

It starts with the simply-staged kind of show that would have worked as well in the days when the Sisters performed in the Collingwood flats’ car park. Singing telegrammer Violet St Clair (Flanders) finds herself in the Miss Havisham-esque house of former-stage-goddess Beverly Dumont (Paul Capsis) and we’re ready for a high-camp drag All About Eve. 

But the girlz know what we expect and expectations are damned as Sisters-founders Flanders and Declan Greene show us what they can do when they have some support and a mainstage theatre.

As always, director Greene is a step or three ahead of his audience and takes us places so unexpected that he makes it seem inevitable and obvious that much of it would be filmed live and shown on a giant screen and that it would be part-animation, part-game and part-better-than-any-mind-altering-drugs-I’ve-taken.

But with all its danger and manic thrills, it comes back to Capsis’s Beverly, who can’t find grace in ageing and would rather wear a wig cap than look at what she hides underneath her silk and wigs. As Beverly is faced diminishing and no choices, Capsis is astonishing. There’s an art to finding the heart in drag and no matter how grotesque and gut-hurting hilarious Beverly is, Capsis never lets us forget that she’s real and hurting – and she remembers what it’s like to be as pretty as Violet.

Along with the ever-wonderful Flanders and Capsis, Sandy Gore drags up as the manipulating men in Beverly’s life and Peter Paltos proves that he would have been a matinee idol as butch as Rock Hudson were he born in an earlier time. They are all glorious.

Calpurnia Descending questions gender, sexuality, age and everything about our obsession with American culture. It even questions what belongs on a funded mainstage, while being one of the most exciting, smart and insanely beautiful shows on our funded mainstages this year.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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