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She's Back, Possums 

Treading funny old waters with Dame Edna

Wednesday, Sep 22 2004
When she finally arrived, fashionably late, to her own opening night, Dame Edna descended from the rafters on a great pink sparkling replica of her signature rhinestone glasses. She declared herself overjoyed to be in San Francisco again, after not just one but two triumphant stints here on a previous tour, and almost immediately turned her pursed-lipped gaze on the audience. "Let me look at you, possums. Oh, you've aged."

As if the old bitch should talk.

Edna, for those of you just in from Mars, is the Australian actor and artist Barry Humphries' world-famous alter ego, a provincial suburban housewife exalted into a glamorous, imperious, Margaret Thatcher-like superstar. She's the mother-in-law who arrives in a glory of jewelry and pink hair and loving phrases, only to sniff around in your cupboards and pass judgment on your silverware. "I like to look in people's bedside drawers, don't you?" she gossips to a woman recruited from the audience to help toss a salad. "You can learn so much about a person that way."

Humphries created Edna 50 years ago, as an ordinary Melbourne housewife. The character rose in stature as she aged, bestowing a knighthood on herself (for example) in London around 1970. A 2000 Broadway show, Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, made her name in America, and she now claims personal friendship with first lady Laura Bush. (More on that in a minute.) Back With a Vengeance is nothing but a victory lap, a Broadway-bound production assembled simply because Edna is a "gigastar" now, possums, and she can.

The show has music, dance, and topical comedy. It's quite pointless. Dame Edna just stands onstage for up to three hours doing whatever she can to deserve your attention, like a late-night television host, the difference being that all of her guests come from the first few rows of seats. She has the gall not only to indulge in audience participation, which is very bad manners, but also to insult the people she chooses. "Mm!" she said to one woman on opening night, after a hug. "You smell rather duty-free, don't you?"

Some of Edna's material is old. A long story about her daughter and "disappointment," Valmai, who's living with a girlfriend on the edge of some remote city Edna can't even locate on a map (in this case, Fresno), was trotted out during The Royal Tour. No doubt the details change from show to show; part of Humphries' brilliance is his talent for building on his own jokes. But even the audience-participation frameworks in Vengeance have, I'm afraid, aged. The surprise phone call to an audience member's relative or friend fell flat on opening night when no one answered. The meal cooked by spectators onstage was perked up only by Edna's incessant martyred hospitality ("Nibble of cheese?" she said to each guest, in rising volume) and by an alleged phone call from Laura Bush for help with a speech. Edna then excused herself from the table and abandoned the audience members onstage. For minutes. Maybe she's done this in other shows, but I'd never seen such bad manners in my life, and I nearly fell off my seat.

Dame Edna researches every town she visits, so she was ready with insults aimed at local personalities. She teased Jan Wahl about her ever-present hat ("I think it's riveted to her head, don't you?") and the mayor about a recent photo shoot in a magazine ("Don't ask me about stains; I'm still trying to get Gavin and Kimberly off my carpet"). Most of these personalities, on opening night, were in the audience.

Technically, the newest part of Vengeance may be the songs, which are nothing special. The first number sets a cheerful, viperish mood, but Edna's theme, "Back With a Vengeance!," lapses into a schlocky Village People groove that clashes with her conversational insults the way her dresses clash with the red drapery. Dame Edna has nothing new to say this time around. But it hardly matters. Her personality is the art, like Warhol's; everything else can come or go. Four professional Broadway dancers join her onstage to add an unnecessary measure of glitz, and Edna's barb at them is a tacit admission that she's just making a buck -- maybe the closest she comes to self-criticism. "The reason this style of dancing is so popular is that it's cheap," she says. "It's also very easy to do. And senior citizens adore it."


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