Calpurnia Descending is a flashy, slight, and superficial tale of the flashy, slight, and superficial quest for fame. See what they did there, dear reader, because this clever parlour trick will either work for you or you’ll start to question why you decided to go to the theatre instead of any of the harem of readily available distractions such as movies, something online (probably cats), or television. And this seems to be what Sisters Grimm is examining as well. TADA, they did it again. This production is a metatextual commentary on fame and media. It takes a lot of chances and expects a lot from the audience but this is why the theatre literate can tear themselves away from those darn entertaining cats.
I was in the presence of greatness and it was overwhelming. As an audience member, Paul Capsis seduced me. Figuratively, of course, but such was his presence that if he offered I probably wouldn’t say no. And to be honest, I only say probably because I’m not sure who’s reading. The stunning and powerful Paul Capsis embodies the character of Beverly Dumont, a combination of every star performer and the ideas of the perception of said stars. The lovely and brilliant Paul Capsis brings Beverly to life through adding emotional depth and honesty to something that could have easily been parody and still succeeded. The legendary and charismatic Paul Capsis gives his all to the audience and fills the room with spectacle. As grand as this performance is, there is a humanity to the melodrama where every gesture has a meaning behind it even if the meaning is that it is meaningless. Beverly is such a performer that even in moments of open sincerity it feels like she has rehearsed this moment to be truly authentic. The performance goes between melodrama and naturalism or rather the melodrama seems very real. TADA.
This constant binary of flash and substance oscillates through the play. Created by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene, Calpurnia Descending is a multimedia theatre experiment. It is inventive and radical in its staging that uses every type of presentation technology to create a media space that distances the audience so we can engage with the ideas. Using this very high level of multimedia does not have an alienating effect but recreates a media rich awareness to mirror the contemporary content saturated attention span. Part of the production is performed behind a screen on which the action is projected as if to say that the story can only be told as a film. You know those people that can’t understand why anyone would go to the theatre when they can watch a movie? Sure you do, we’ve talked about them before. In fact, there’s a good chance that there were some of these people in the audience possibly seeing how the sexier half lives. When the play is being filmed it isn’t privileging one mode of storytelling over the other rather coexistence where one informs the other. This harmony is destabilised when the technology seems to be taking over and the mediated performance becomes entirely technological in a presentation of a cyber consciousness that starts to become uncomfortable before, without missing a beat, we transition back to a sparse stage, without the wizz-bang trickery and the audience is shown why theatre can hold its own against the movies.
Stylistically the play is melodrama and it is rewarding to see the cast enjoying the high-theatrics. Each cast member is comfortable with the material and brings stunning and flawless delivery. Ash Flanders (the show’s co-creator), Sandy Gore, and Peter Paltos join Paul Capsis and perform with surety and flawless delivery and is reminiscent of 1950s comedies. The fact that Paul, Ash, and Sandy are in drag is unimportant as the comedy is more aware and mature than that. Each performer is as convincing as melodrama will allow and own their respective roles.
Declan Green directs with a deep understanding of theatre and film traditions and an adroit display of the craft. It would be easy to lose the production to the bells and whistles but Declan combines all this to tell the story clearly and without compromise.
There are two stories happening here and both have the theme of getting rid of the traditional. As Beverly Dumont, the star, is being replaced by a new version so too is theatre being replaced by film and ultimately the intertubes; neither will go without a fight. While we see authenticity become image that image holds the authentic. It might appear flashy, slight, and superficial, melodrama often does, but what is being said is deeper than that and the way it is being said is exciting.