Calpurnia Descending is unlike anything else currently playing in Sydney, and miles away from anything you’d expect to see at the STC. It’s commendably mad; a revue show with main-stage polish, but one that still manages to retain the raucously unpredictable spirit of the wine cellar.
The characters and plot are old as the hills, lovingly so. An ingénue with big dreams (Ash Flanders) discovers a reclusive diva (Paul Capsis) who’s been shuttered away in her Manhattan apartment for ten long years. A gravel-voiced impresario (the inestimable Sandy Gore) and a hotshot young director (Peter Paltos) can’t believe their good fortune: the star in abeyance is just the ticket they need to get out of the financial doldrums. Soon, of course, the ingénue draws the eye of the director, much to the chagrin of the insecure leading lady, without whose involvement the entire show will fall through.
Calpurnia is the latest from Melbourne duo Sisters Grimm, who consist of Flanders and Declan Greene. They wrote the show together, and Greene directs. Parodying movie melodramas is their thing, on a formal level as well as a linguistic one. Calpurnia is projected onto a screen for almost the entire second half, the actors not seen in the flesh at all, but one of its marvels is that it still feels like a pure shot of theatre, vital in its sense of immediacy and spontaneity. Live video seems to be the de rigueur theatrical device these days, but here for once it’s a stylistic choice that feels inextricable from content. It’s a bold gambit but also fitting, given the inspirations to which this show pays homage. Films like Sunset Boulevard, divas like Bette Davis, the hard-boiled dialogue of vintage noir.
Most of all, Calpurnia is zany fun. At one point in the first half the lights went up and a voice announced that there was a technical problem. Everybody looked around, grinning – this was surely yet another meta gag. I’m still not entirely sure. A bit later a giant rat ambled onto stage, danced a jig, told the audience to stay in school, and shuffled off. It’s that kind of show.
Calpurnia Descending is playing at the Wharf 2 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company until Saturday November 8.