Review: Calpurnia Descending, Sisters Grimm

Sisters Grimm are back in Sydney and they have been missed. Their particular brand of arch DIY high-camp theatre is a fantastic bolt of energy to the theatre scene in town, and Calpurnia Descending is nothing if not pure, concentrated energy.

What begins as a clever parody of old Hollywood films about aging actresses (Think All About Eve, but there’s a whole lot of them, and they’re all referenced here) soon ventures out of those safe waters into something else entirely.

Calpurnia Descending. Image by Brett Boardman.
Calpurnia Descending. Image by Brett Boardman.

But that’s where we begin, with Beverly Dumont (Paul Capsis), a faded Broadway baby turned shut-in, tended to by her butler Tootles (Sandy Gore). Beverly hasn’t been outside in a decade, and when the wide-eyed country mouse Violet St Clair (Ash Flanders) bursts into Beverly’s penthouse with a singing telegram, her world is wide open once again.

Idealistic wannabe actress Violet is going to get Beverly back into the world! She meets a Broadway producer Max Silvestri (Sandy Gore, again) and a director (Peter Paltos) at a bar and brings them back to the Penthouse. They’re going to stage the flop that stalled Beverly’s career, “Calpurnia Descending.” With a small part for Violet, of course…

As the play switches from setup to payoff, the shape of the work transforms. A screen falls over the stage and projects a live feed of the actors as the story dips its toe into rehearsals. There are smart, classic cinematic cuts (it feels like a film from the 1950s) and close-ups, as well as a bunch of visual gags – a prop foot that falls over when an actor walks further into frame, creating a brief illusion of an extra foot; a doll’s hand rapping on a door – and though the synchronisation of vision and sound is a little off, it’s not terribly difficult to adjust your own mental intake levels.

It’s a not a safe, sweet play anymore. It’s not a traditional play at all anymore.

Calpurnia Descending. Image by Brett Boardman.
Calpurnia Descending. Image by Brett Boardman.

And that’s a great thing. Why should Sisters Grimm stay there, locked in the same old same old, when they could link their work to something bigger than homage: to an urgently uncertain future of a fractured, frequently bought-and-sold community of ‘others’?

After some manipulation from Violet the ingénue, and after a rocky set of rehearsals, the curtain goes up on our play within a play. And then it, rapidly, falls apart. The filmic screen work gives way to a heady mixture of animation and green screen work. The live feed is abandoned so that we can fall properly into Beverly’s nightmare, hurtled into a geocities homepage nightmare, gifs rotating interminably and all, of imagery and advertisting, hosted by a Belkin router.

When it does this, when it abandons linear theatrical convention, the work states itself clearly: this isn’t a loving drag parody to appease the gods of camp. This is a deadly sharp commentary on the commodification and commercialisation of queer culture; the shifting understanding and self-identification of queer communities on a generational level; and the startlingly fast clip at which it all changes and will continue to change. In the nightmare, Violet St Clair becomes, essentially, Katy Perry: a sellout version of an old-school diva. A brand. Drink Pepsi and become amazing; wear your hair like Lady Gaga and achieve cultural relevance. Run through a mess of digitized sex, violence, and beauty, because how the hell else do you manage to survive 2014 but with an internet connection and global corporate acquiescence? But with your own sellable brand? After all, drag has its own reality competition show now. This isn’t Beverly Dumont’s world anymore.

It’s like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart reminds us: there’s a reason why the old markers of a community (like in Kramer’s piece, promiscuity and sexual liberation) are so hard to let go of. Any freedom was hard-won and must be treasured. What do you do when straight white pop stars reach into the world of GLBT people of colour and co-opt Voguing? How do you maintain a link to something that is yours, a solace and point of difference, when it is suddenly everyone’s – but now it’s a lot more shallow, torn from its roots and history? How do you stay within the goalposts of a life if they keep shifting, if your ‘thing’ becomes a thing of the masses?

Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders in Calpurnia Descending. Image by Brett Boardman.
Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders in Calpurnia Descending. Image by Brett Boardman.

And, for this play, to complete the leap of storytelling: Who is Beverly Dumont if Violet St Clair can do what she does just as well, but with a more slick, young, and socially acceptable face? It’s telling that the animated/green screen descent begins when the audience gets a look at Beverly’s face after ten years gone, and they gasp in shock and disappointment. “She’s so old”, you hear them murmur. She’s a joke to them now.

It’s actually a really fascinating, never really abandoned talking point in queer cultural thinkpieces, and it’s thrilling to see that debate take place at the Sydney Theatre Company. This is a mainstream, mainstage theatre company playing proud host to a work that is nothing even close to mainstream, and it’s elecritifying to see, hear and feel queer voices so loudly and clearly on such a well-regarded platform.

Paul Capsis is a national treasure and Ash Flanders is increasingly, constantly evolving into very culturally important performer; they’re a delight to watch on stage. Capsis embraces his inner twisted crone; there’s something magical about him, even when Beverly Dumont is brittle and drunk and dark. Sandy Gore’s dual-duty grounds the play in something satisfyingly steady; her character work as Max in particular is marvellous. Paltos speaks with perfect old Hollywood cadence and charms as the director who worships Beverly but soon shifts his attentions to Violet.

David Fleischer’s set and the confluence of lighting and audio-visual design by Katie Sfetkidis, Jed Palmer, and Matthew Gingold and Matthew Greenwood entirely overwhelming and unique and successful. A technical snag hit on opening night, but it was handled capably and smoothly.

It’s a bit of a cacophony of ideas and sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it struggles with pacing, with loose threads, or with the barrier that sometimes comes between technical devices and theatrical meaning. Those moments will be too much for some. The way the play seems descendent from Artaud’s theatre of cruely, the style spun out from surrealism into a sensory assault designed to “wake us up. Nerves and heart,” will be difficult to bear. Some of the humour – the incongruity of a giant rat dancing to ‘Baby Elephant Walk’, a brow-raising film synopsis – will rub the wrong way. Some of the animations will be too much; the sound will irk. The vulgar humour will upset.

But it is a greatly exciting piece of theatre because it does not compromise itself once for the comfort of the audience.

Calpurnia Descending is not a nice little romp in the Old Hollywood era. It is not a safe play. It may not, potentially, be made for you. And it’s all the better for it: undeniably queer, relentlessly, surreally funny, and deeply intelligent.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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