I declared undying devotion-love gets more complicated-to the one and only Dame Edna Everage when she was last in town four years ago. Now that she’s back with a vengeance, I see no reason to change my mind. I wouldn’t mess with her if I were you, but Dame Edna is just the best.
The mythic bird of paradise is of course the creation of the Australian comic genius, Barry Humphries. And genius he undoubtedly is. You should catch Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance! at the Music Box, particularly if you’ve never seen Dame Edna before. Mr. Humphries has firstly invented something that never existed in the public imagination until now. That is to say, Australia. He’s also the last of a glorious kind-the last link to those unique artists and brave, half-nutty individualists who give cross-dressing and vaudeville a good name.
His postmodern heir is Eddie Izzard (but the wizard Izzard doesn’t have the audience playing charades onstage with him. He chats like Dame Edna). The cross-dressing Dame, incidentally, is a British pantomime tradition in which the elderly Dame is always played by a man (and the male lead, known as the Principal Boy, is played by a girl with short hair). The Dame is extremely fond of the boy, and all ends happily after. See it as opera. But Mr. Humphries knows all this in his blood. Apart from his innate talent, the link with vaudeville and panto accounts for the suggestive Dame Edna’s love of bawdiness, her give-and-take with the audience, eccentricity, high energy, lightning response, improvisatory flair, danger.
Only the great vaudevillian strikes a solo bargain with extreme danger. Dame Edna belongs to a warrior class of entertainer. The audience is to be conquered. But the moment-the instant-she falters onstage, she’s finished. That would be true of any performer, but it’s truest of Barry Humphries, who risks the most.
For example, he’s the only stage performer I’ve seen who makes the audience the show. It’s a stroke of perverse genius. In a sense, the audience does the work for him. The audience becomes Dame Edna’s straight man.
If we want to be high-minded about it-and we certainly do-there’s a link with the timeless art of circus: Circus performers have always made the audience part of the show. But not as much as Dame Edna. Naturally, she’s aged a bit over the years-from big sister to favorite aunt to everyone’s dreaded Mom to … Wise Woman. She’s always been timeless. She could be a sequined Pierrot or white-face kabuki. She’s our Edna instead, homey in her faux innocence, lethal in her wit-looking, as she says, “gorgeous and intensely vulnerable.”
The show was always a sacrosanct ritual in classic vaudeville. The show never changed. Yet in the company of a master comedian, you were on the floor with laughter just the same. And you laughed because you knew what was coming. But Dame Edna has upped the ante: Her show doesn’t change much, but it’s always different. The audience participation makes it new every time.
It’s well-known by now that if you happen to be somewhat shy, or might not enjoy being publicly humiliated in front of a thousand strangers, it’s best to avoid sitting in the first four or five rows of a Dame Edna performance. True, in her caring, nurturing way, the lady points out that it should be an honor to be singled out by her. After all, did the Apostles pray for Jesus not to pick on them?
No, they didn’t. An Edna disciple is someone who knows better, but can’t resist. They’re good sports. “You’re retired?” Dame Edna says sweetly to an elderly lady in the audience who’s named Lola. “How lovely! Take me through your day, Lola.”
And so Lola actually describes her day as if she’s having a private little chat with an old friend-as if the rest of us aren’t even there. And after two or three staggeringly inconsequential minutes, Dame Edna says to her, “And it’s not even noon yet.”
A mere megastar when she was last on Broadway, she describes herself now as “a glittering gigastar.” But she was always gig; it’s the others that got small. In the satirical essentials, Dame Edna sends up fleeting fame and all celebrity, even her own. This is the thing, though: For a caring person who’s intensely vulnerable underneath, she isn’t nice.
Her family is dysfunctional: the dykey, disappointing daughter, Valma, and son Kenny, the practicing homeopath and friend of Sam Champion. Dame Edna believes in tough love. “My children come last,” she announces with a heart-warming smile. “Quality time is the time I spend away from them.”
If that weren’t the case, she adds, we wouldn’t have the benefit of her being here with us. And we are glad. We are all Dame Edna’s possums now. And so we wave our gladioli in tribute, as custom requires.
Not so sure about Eve. I was never a big fan of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. Naturally I was pleased for her that after a global feminist struggle, she finally came to like her vagina. But I didn’t see what it had to do with me. To be honest, all this talk of vaginas sort of ruined the mystery for me. Or as Dame Edna points out nostalgically about Vagina Monologues, “There must have been something about the show, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
Anyway, just when we thought we were out of the woods, just when Rhea Perlman has stopped making guest appearances in Vagina Monologue readings-not that I’ve anything against Rhea Perlman-Ms. Ensler announces that she’s realized her self-hatred has just crept from her vagina into her stomach.
At least it’s on the up. Hence her show about the politics of being overweight, Good Body, at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, no less. I must say I hadn’t seen packing on the pounds as a political issue. I thought it was about overeating. In my naïve way, I thought the answer for us all is to be found in the two most unwelcome words in the English language: diet and exercise.
But Ms. Ensler blames her eating habits on the usual suspects-cruel parents, neurotic lack of feminine self-esteem, universal male expectations and the beauty industry, and maybe I’ll have another doughnut.
It’s true that since I last saw her onstage, she’s gained a pound or two. But nothing to build a Taj Mahal of self-love around. Her adoring disciples are almost all women. My friend, the veteran Post critic Clive Barnes, described the women surrounding him at the show as mostly “beyond the easy reach of diet, gym, surgeon or prayer.” I couldn’t possibly say that. It’s an unnatural audience, though. As far as I could see, there were scarcely a dozen men present, as if they’d wandered into the wrong show instead of Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance at the Music Box across the street.
Ms. Ensler impersonates a number of women she interviewed on her travels in search of an answer to her miserable life-including earnest meetings with Isabella Rossellini, a 74-year-old Masai woman in Africa, an Indian lady in a gym in India, an Afghan woman in Kabul, a Puerto Rican Weight Watcher and Helen Gurley Brown. Unfortunately, they all look and sound more or less like Eve Ensler. Not to be personal, but her lifelong preoccupation with her own body is getting a wee bit narcissistic. Even the wise old Masai woman could have been her. “You’ve got to love your body, Eve,” she advises. “You’ve got to love your tree.”
The last image we have of Ms. Ensler before the curtain comes down at last is of her diving into a bowl of ice cream. Apparently, she’s seen the light. She’s given up all hope. “I eat for my mother,” she chants in poetry for us:
I eat for me ….
Let the fat sweet sugary wet
Enter and encompass me.
Let me not be afraid of my fullness,
Let me not be afraid to be seen.
The rapidly expanding Eve Ensler is believed to have already completed her next solo show, Tits and Ass: A Tragedy, and its long-awaited sequel, How I Pigged Out on Ice Cream and Got It All Horribly Wrong.
Meanwhile, I promise you there really is a new V-Day project, inspired by Ms. Ensler’s meeting with the wise old Masai woman and entitled Love Your Tree. It’s described in the Playbill insert as her “vision of a space to go after The Good Body … to empower and enlighten the way women look at their bodies.” Currently at ABC Carpet and Home, 888 Broadway, through Jan. 13.
See you there.