December 16, 2008

Close quarters with Dame Edna

Ever since the death of James Brown, the title of "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business" might rightfully be bestowed upon Dame Edna Everage. Or, more precisely, upon Barry Humphries, who has made a 50-year career by transforming himself into the Australian housewife-turned-gigastar. What makes his performances so labor-intensive is that each evening he pretty much has to create a new show.

In the oxymoronic world of Dame Edna, more of the same by definition means none of the same. Or not much. If you have seen Humphries-as-Edna in either of his two previous SF shows, you'll know that the format involves considerable interaction with members of the audience. How they react to Edna's insult-limned queries, either from their seats or after being hauled on stage, requires constant improvised comebacks and punchlines. You can't phone in a Dame Edna performance (but you can call out; more on which below).

Dame Edna - Live and Intimate in Her First Last Tour, now in residence at the Post Street Theatre, has several structural and thematic variations on what has come before. There is an increased use of video packages, in-the-flesh appearances by slacker daughter Valmai (local actress Erin-Kate Whitcomb), and a kind of winking acknowledgment that reveals glimmers of the man behind the woman. And don't be fooled by the false finale and rush up the aisle toward the exit, for there is a poignant (if somewhat awkwardly presented) surprise coda.

The scripted patter combines new gags with musty chestnuts, and stabs at topical humor can be a little lame. But whatever flows from Dame Edna's twisted lips is spoken with such ebullient misplaced authority that spirits always remain high.

But even Dame Edna can sometimes overstep an audience's tolerance for personal insults, even when spoken with mock hauteur, and you could feel Humphries backpedaling after cutting too close to the bone with comments about the physical appearance of a woman chosen to be part of a faux talk show.

Another extended bit using dragooned audience volunteers involves Edna marrying a randomly chosen man and woman - and calling unsuspecting loved ones on a speaker-phone to announce the nuptials. Besides choosing a grinning gay man as comically helpful as a turnip to play the groom, Edna also ended up in voice-mail hell before, with clenched determination, finally connected with a live person to give the bit its payoff.

But like a tightrope walker or an animal trainer who puts his head inside the jaws of a lion, danger is part of the appeal. A script is the performer's safety net, and Humphries is willing to forego that protection night after night. As for our security, Dame Edna only grudgingly makes the required pre-show announcement instructing audiences to note the nearest exit. "Your safety," she says, "is pretty low on my list of priorities."

Source: eBar

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