MTC: Pennsylvania Avenue

Last week, Melbourne’s two mainstage companies opened shows by Melbourne writers. Both directed by Melbourne directors and featured Melbourne performers and creators. Both were also set in the USA and based on US culture. But the chasm between Pennsylvania Avenue, at the MTC, and Calpurnia Descending, at Malthouse Theatre, is so wide that one can barely wave at the other.

Bernadette Robinson. Pennsyvania Avenue
Bernadette Robinson. Pennsyvania Avenue

Pennsylvania Avenue gets the Songs for Nobodies gang back together. Written by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Simon Phillips and performed by Bernadette Robinson, Nobodies is a heartfelt work about five fictional nobodies who encounter five famous and broken singer somebodies (Garland, Cline, Piaf, Holiday and Callas). Each story is complete and uses the music and Robinson’s talent to mimic to add so much to the stories about how nobody is really a nobody.

Pennsylvania Avenue started with the same idea and ran in the other direction.

Set in the Blue Room, another oval room, in the East Wing of the White House in Washington, it’s the story of nobody Harper Clements who worked as a social secretary at the White House from presidents Kennedy to Bush jnr. She’s well over 50 (the horror) and it’s time for her to leave with her cardboard box of memories, like when she recommended that Marilyn Monroe take her knickers off to get a better line in the dress when she sang “Happy Birthday” to Kennedy and when she accidentally suggested to Reagan that “Tear down that wall” would help his Berlin speech. With photos of her in the background of famous photos, her story begs for more inside knowledge of the White House and the people who live and work there, and for a greater insight into her own politics.

But she’s fiction. In all fairness, it’s never claimed that she’s real, but it was the question everyone was asking after the show because she seemed real enough to wonder.

So why this story? Why is Melbourne’s flagship company commissioning a story that has no direct or even thematic connection to Australia? Apart from maybe the fact that side-stepping politics is easy. The post-show treats were even Budwiser and fries with USA stickers on the box.

When did Melbourne become the out-of-town try out city for Broadway? Because that’s where this show wants to go and as a bland celebration of USA culture, it might run for years. The inspiration of the work is Robinson and she continues to sing like the best. This time she sings the songs of people who performed at or visited the White House (including Monroe, Streisand – “she’s Jewish” – Vaughan, Kitt, Ross and Dylan – Bob). But while there was connection in Nobodies, there was little connection between songs and this character. And this time the mimicing felt weird. Why doesn’t Harper sing as Harper? It felt like a drag show without any of the subversion.

Meanwhile, a couple blocks away at the Malthouse, Calpurnia Descending opened. It 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 (and drag) to make up for Pennsylvania Avenue.

Review of Calpurnia Descending.

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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