Cabaret star Paul Capsis teams with Sisters Grimm to bring to the stage an original twist on an age-old tale. By Steve Dow.

Paul Capsis scales the heights with Calpurnia Descending

Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders (left) in Calpurnia Descending.
Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders (left) in Calpurnia Descending.

In this story

New York, 1939. What’s a small-town girl from an apple farm in Branson, Missouri, doing in a grand apartment like this? Sure, it’s the Depression. Everyone’s working an angle. But teenage ingenue Violet St Clair, played by a male Melbourne actor, Ash Flanders, has no idea she’s the next big thing. 

This is the belfry of Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. Baby pigeons coo on the other side of the tin ceiling. Four actors, their director Declan Greene, and designers are here rehearsing the latest Sisters Grimm show, Calpurnia Descending, and today cameras are trained on the behind-the-scenes goings-on to record a movie to run between live performances on stage. 

What is being presented here, exactly? We, the audience, will think we know this narrative trope of chorus girl soars to stardom. But here is a play within a play, and also a film within a stage show. There are laughs but also provocation about gender and sexuality. 

Violet has a whistle and a birthday singing telegram to deliver. Living in this apartment is Clarence “Tootles” Laughton, an embittered sissy man in his 50s. A sissy was the permissible, asexual, stock gay joke movie character both before and after the 1934 Hays movie code forbade “sexual perversion”, following which, for decades, Hollywood shunned gay and lesbian characters, unless they were murderers or self-loathing wretches who met grisly ends.

But it’s not Tootles’ birthday being celebrated. “Mistress,” the deep-pitched sissy, played by a woman, Sandy Gore, yells. “You’ve got a visitor.” And here she is, the extinguished star, a has-been in her late 40s: Beverly Dumont, in dark sunglasses and dressing gown, played by a man, Paul Capsis, cigarette in mouth and pushing herself along in her wheelchair. 

Tootles told everyone Beverly was dead, and now imprisons her in a hater-carer role, as classic as Bette Davis’s Jane terrorising Joan Crawford’s Blanche in the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Beverly, as the embittered, faded actress, is a riff, too, on Davis in All About Eve, or Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. But this former Queen of Broadway warms to Violet, leaning into the plucky telegram girl and reminiscing: “In 1921 Isadora Duncan borrowed my scarf without asking. You can bet I got it back.” 

Sisters Grimm was founded by writer-director Greene and writer-star Flanders, who teamed up after appearing in a self-described “awful” Melbourne International Comedy Festival play in 2005. Their own, later, drag queen version of Flowers in the Attic, based on the 1979 V. C. Andrews novel and the 1987 film, announced their DIY-theatre aesthetic. Like the Melbourne bands and stand-up comics they admired, they staged productions in improvised spaces, such as shopfronts. 

Theatre critic Kevin Jackson was among many who loved the Sisters Grimm play Little Mercy. First seen in a Collingwood car park in 2010 and polished for Sydney Theatre Company consumption in 2013, Little Mercy celebrated the evil-child movie genre and satirised Hollywood’s reduction of women to hysterics, with a 76-year-old woman ingeniously cast as an eight-year-old child. Jackson last year blogged of the fun in guessing all the filmic references, but he warned for their next venture: “Don’t you touch Cleopatra.”

Set and costume designer David Fleischer, who has short hair, spectacles and a trim-styled moustache, brings a series of costume drawings into the rehearsal room for the play within Calpurnia Descending, also called Calpurnia Descending, and lays them out on a trestle table. These A3 coloured-pencil drawings include Cleopatra, with peacock feathers on her head and ghetto hotpant bodysuit, to be played by Flanders, who most recently brought his androgynous looks to a post-gender casting as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at Belvoir St Theatre. 

There’s also Caesar, in faux Versace Lycra, toga and sexy pouch, to be played by frequent Sisters Grimm actor Peter Paltos, who may or may not shave his beard for the show’s season. Then, of course, there’s the elaborate off-the-shoulder dress, cape and bun wig for 16-year-old Calpurnia, the true ruler of the Roman Republic and seer of Caesar’s death, played by Capsis, an Australian cabaret and theatre legend of some 30 years and a 2012 Helpmann-award winning actor for his beautiful autobiographical play Angela’s Kitchen, co-written with director Julian Meyrick.

Sisters Grimm specialises in props that are out of time and all wrong. So, that period-appropriate leather-padded wheelchair, with its wicker backing, two wheels in front and one wheel behind? It’s jettisoned for a modern metal wheelchair. The photo on the coffee table of a 1970s family in garish holiday garb may stay. No word yet on whether they will cut the scene that requires someone to put on a plush rat costume, walk on stage and eat crumbs, then dance to Henry Mancini’s 1961 composition Baby Elephant Walk.

Violet is clearly not in Branson, Missouri, anymore. But her prototype has survived Hollywood cinema of the 20th century, time-travelled through Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 box office and critical stiff Showgirls, and met its cult status in the 21st as the first stage-sighting of an exciting Capsis-Flanders pairing.

The actors gather around the table and read scene two. Sandy Gore, playing another man, the fiftysomething crooked Broadway producer Max Silvestri, is trying to persuade Beverly to light up the stage once more. 

“Punch me in the cock,” says Gore, in a Brooklyn tough guy accent. 

1 . Outsiders

The life of an outsider. Ash Flanders is an intense and serious little kid. Four times a year, he is packed off to a Christian youth camp run by his uncle. He starts to learn that, being attracted to men, he is inherently evil. He goes to an all-boys’ high school. Comedy gets him through – the Jewish borscht-belt comedians, Mel Brooks and Joan Rivers, and obsessively watching Fran Drescher’s comic timing on the TV show The Nanny. “I knew if I could make my mum laugh, then I could make anyone laugh.”

At 16, he sees Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Melbourne Theatre Company. This glamorous Marlene Dietrich-type character flies from the ceiling on a swing. Thus begins 14 years of “stalking” Paul Capsis, in the best possible taste of fandom, until last year, when he and Declan Greene write a rough outline of Calpurnia Descending with Capsis in mind. “I guess I was unconsciously looking for someone who resembled myself,” recalls Flanders of first seeing Capsis in the Brecht play in 1999. “It blew my mind that a man could also be this beautiful woman; this stunning, talented starlet. It just stayed with me for years. Never left.

“Paul carved a road for performers who might be interested in playing with gender in their performance. He has the balls to get up there. He’s electric on stage, and he’s transformative. In a very deep way, in the Australian culture, you’re taught not to stand out and to blend in. Paul has never been afraid to stand out, and be a star: not just to impersonate the greatest stars, but channel them, like some form of armour, was really exciting to me.”

Flanders engineers it so that Capsis is invited to opening night of Little Mercy, in which Flanders plays institutionalised housewife Virginia. It’s the first Sisters Grimm production Capsis has seen and he is quick to his feet in the standing ovation. In the foyer, he tells Flanders and Greene he’d love to work with them. Well, they just so happen to have this play about two Broadway stars…

Capsis is the son of Greek and Maltese migrant families, and grows up in Sydney’s Surry Hills. He is bullied at school for standing out; the Turk boys are the worst, while the Greek boys harass him for not acting as Greek boys should. Joining the Shopfront Theatre for Young People at 18 saves his life, and he gets to perform Brecht and Shakespeare. Capsis later philosophises that his school years taught him life is tough. Shit happens. You get through. And he learns generosity for those child and teenage tormenters. Maybe they had a tough upbringing. Maybe they were abused at home.

Capsis does drag at Sydney’s drag mecca, the Albury Hotel, but resists the pressure from parts of the gay culture to be vicious and nasty on stage. In drag, in his mind, he is always a person. Judy Garland, say, or Billie Holiday. His love of strong rock icons grows: the late Janis Joplin, whose recordings sound both male and female; Suzi Quatro, playing Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion in the mid-’70s, with her long hair and gold jumpsuit, pumping the bass; Tina Turner, whose voice in early recordings lays bare her personal torment. It is male-female duality in the same person – the more ambiguous they are, the more they fascinate him. He grows his hair long, too, for performance. Punk and rock are his talismans, never disco, and he sits in the dark, headphones on, listening for messages in the lyrics but wrapping himself in the feeling. 

“I’d try and swim into this place where the voices were hanging, and go, ‘What’s the message?’ ” recalls Capsis. “Why does she sing like she’s crying? [Music] saved me. It’s my religion. It’s my Bible. I worship at it.”

As a child, Declan Greene is obsessed with Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz. At five, his mother lets him go to kinder dress-up day as the Wicked Witch of the West, all in green. When he gets to high school, everything changes. He censors his flamboyance. “That was where I tried to learn to perform as a man,” he quips. “Very unsuccessfully.”

How does Greene hope the audience will read the drag in Calpurnia Descending – that drag is something we all perform every day, in our decisions to put on our clothes? “Always. That’s always at the forefront of what we’re doing, encouraging audiences to recognise the really sterile, binary way we talk about gender in this country in particular, and the fact that as a last frontier, people who fall outside that boundary are such a maligned people in Australia as well.”

Popular cultural is being destabilised, too. “We’re commenting on the texts that we’re appropriating from, looking at the way the films we’re viewing speak to the values of the present. By abstracting it, casting against gender, against age, against race, it really pulls the audience’s attention to the way those texts work in terms of representation, or attribute power to the people in those worlds.” 

Capsis sees this as politically important, with the unsettled geopolitical state of the world, a “revolution” being required among men to learn the best attributes of women. In pop culture terms, divas of old – Davis, Crawford or Swanson – are contrasted with divas of the new – Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga – to see what diva worship says about our times. All the while, the audience is in on the gag as they’re watching Capsis and Flanders duel on stage.

What of those who say drag makes fun of women? “I think some of it is misogynist,” says Capsis. “But overall, for the performer it is a liberation. Doing it, for myself, was freeing. Then I got to the point where I thought: No, I don’t see myself in dresses. Even in the early days, performing in drag, I didn’t want to be a woman. I wanted to be me.”

“It’s like any art form, I think it comes down to intention,” says Flanders. “There’s good drag and bad drag.” Greene adds: “Even the term ‘drag’ includes many types of drag and subdrag. It would be just like saying, ‘theatre is misogynist’. It’s far too broad to say anything generally.” 

Capsis says a lot of drag today is not interesting because “a lot of drag queens, good on ’em, just want to look pretty. Like women. Want to pass. I’ve always liked the crazy, wild drag I remember seeing when I came out as an 18-year-old.”

But Calpurnia Descending looks set to stir an audience, at the very least with an entertaining, original twist on old tales. Capsis channels a little Beverly Dumont disdain and his own creative energy force, which is far from spent. “Oh my god, it makes my blood boil. I’m so fucking angry with the fucking theatre in this country. It’s 99 per cent boring yawn-fest.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 15, 2014 as "Grimm pickings".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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