Spectacular Spectacular: STC & Malthouse’s Calpurnia Descending

Melbourne theatre-duo Sisters Grimm are a force to be reckoned with. Having built a name for themselves with their rambunctious theatrical genre mash-ups (last seen in Sydney with Summertime in the Garden of Eden), they return to the Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse stages for their second mainstage production, Calpurnia Descending. While remaining true to Sisters Grimm’s ethos of gay DIY drag-theatre productions gloriously played to the hilt but never to excess, Calpurnia plays with all the resources, support and panache of one (rather, two) of Australia’s leading theater companies and the result is every bit as astounding and audacious as it is entertaining and vicious.

Nothing here is sacred or off-limits to creators Declan Greene and Ash Flanders. Set in a wildly anachronistic 1930s period, Calpurnia Descending takes on the fickle and everchanging carousel of Hollywood stardom, lavish big-budget studio productions, star vehicles and star power, and mixes it with a remarkably effective recreation of a studio-bound backstage drama. Incredibly, it also manages to include a pop-culture mash up that would make Soda_Jerk proud, all the while unfolding around the story of a doomed epic of twenty-first century proportions – bigger, better and bolder, with more glitz, more glamour, and more diva.
While Greene and Flanders’ tongues are firmly in their cheeks as writers, Greene is careful not to cut himself as director, because his wit and aim is savage, caustic and true and, while vicious and catty at times, Calpurnia – as a production as much as a character – is a nonetheless capriciously gleeful, irreverent and frenetic. As the fading Broadway diva Beverly Dumont, Paul Capsis is marvellous. At first like a wheelchair-bound 1930s Miss Havisham, dressed in all her former finery, chain-smoking and drinking endlessly, her voice like gravel, Capsis’ Dumont warms to the presence of the younger Violet St. Clair (Flanders) and her inner star comes out to shine, alongside the power-hungry, scene-stealing, scenery-chewing diva. The final scene, alone, bereft and almost-naked, is heartbreaking, but underneath the vulnerable exterior is the heart of a born theatre-animal, and her final speech – delivered atop a stepladder, swathed in green cloth – is testament to Capsis’ strength as an actor and showman, as much as it is to the characters and story. As the younger starlet, Flanders here is in his element. Gone is the bored and disaffected persona of his Hedda Gabler (itself the butt of a clever (obligatory?) in-joke); in its place, is the girlish (at first) and radiant starlet who star quickly ascends to bright and lofty heights. Sandy Gore as the producer Max and Dumont’s butler-cum-sycophant Tootles is deliciously greasy and grandiose. ‘But Brutus is an honourable man,’ she almost seems to say at one point, defending Max’s actions, but it is not that kind of drama. Peter Paltos as the stage director, a veritable Caesar, caught in the middle of this cosmic cat-fight is as sincere and duplicitous as he can be, until he is ultimately caught out by his own human desires and folly, the man who got too close to the light of the star and crashed and burned.
David Fleischer’s gorgeous costumes and simplistic representative bare-bones set are sumptuous. Blending the finery of a 1930s Hollywood aesthetic with disco-glam spandex bodysuits, nylon wigs and brightly coloured lipstick, these stars are visions to behold. They are indeed ready for their close-up, Mr De Mille. More than complemented by Katie Sfetkidis’ bright and vibrant lighting, as larger-than-life as the stars themselves, they work in tandem, both theatrically and filmically, in colour and black-and-white, and that is no mean feat at all. Jed Palmer’s music and sound design, again, complements the visual mash-up of styles, moving from the lush sounds of a Hollywood-studio orchestra to the contemporary clatter-and-bleep of video-game soundtracks.
Framed by three scenes performed in front of us, two-thirds of Calpurnia unfolds through the mediated lens of cameras, as the action unfolds behind a large projection screen at the front of the imposed proscenium, a mix of live performances captured by several cameras and relayed live, pre-recorded elements, green-screen elements, and borderline psychedelic and hyperactive animation. The work of Matthew Gringold (AV) and Matthew Greenwood (animation), this part of the show starts in black-and-white, before progressing into ‘Technicolour’ and continuing into the frenetic and visually-saturated world of mass-media, video games and contemporary advertising. It is an audacious and bold choice, but it is clever and unpredictable enough to maintain our interest for the near hour of its deployment. There are many ingenious uses of simple technology to create strong visual effect – from the spinning newspapers, to the mirror scenes, stand-ins, and cinematic over-shoulder shots. There is also much invisible and tireless work here by the stage manager and assistant stage manager – Lisa Osborn and Amy Burkett respectively – to ensure everything runs smoothly and flawlessly, and it is a masterstroke of theatrical malleability and imagination.
“Theatre may have changed since the Colloseum, but audiences have not. They’re still not satisfied until they’ve tasted blood,” Capsis’ Dumont says at one point, and as the knives are sharpened, claws extended and eyebrows impeccably pencilled on, it is hard not to agree. It asks us how far we are complicit in the creation of movie stars, how complicit we are in the maintaining of their status, and how responsible we are for their demise; whether we are as truly innocent as we believe, or whether our actions, desires and supposed needs (fed to us and mediated by the mass-media) are as pure and/or honourable as we first think. While Flanders might put up a good fight as the up-and-coming starlet, the night belongs to Capsis whose star, unlike Beverly Dumont’s, has definitely not faded.

Theatre playlist: 64. Sunset Boulevard: Suite, Franz Waxman

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