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Crowd Pleaser

December 17, 2008

The audience is the star at insult-comic queen's S.F. show.

Dame Edna Everage was never one for modesty. "Everage is probably the most popular and gifted woman in the world today," trumpet the program notes accompanying the self-proclaimed Australian gigastar's latest touring show, Dame Edna Live and Intimate! In Her First Last Tour. For more than 50 years, Dame Edna, the drag queen alter ego of septuagenarian performer and writer Barry Humphries, has been regaling stage and television audiences around the world with her politically incorrect social commentary, caterwauling singing voice, penchant for flinging gladioli (her signature flower) at fans, and mushroom-cloud–sized ego. But if the performance I recently caught at San Francisco's Post Street Theatre is anything to go by, Dame Edna's star power might be starting to rub off on her audiences.

Until now, to love Dame Edna has, generally speaking, meant subjugating your own ego to her overdeveloped sense of self-regard. For years, she has churned out the same shtick, primping her position in a swirl of sequined arrogance and celebrity name-dropping while cheerfully putting down everyone else. I've lost count of the number of times I've watched her heckle patrons in the nosebleeds by calling them "paupers," and telling those in the orchestra they've "tragically aged." But the repetition hardly matters. There's a masochistic part of us that just can't get enough of her backhanded compliments and unabashed insults, even though we may have heard them many times before. Somehow, the Great Dame's old vaudeville tricks still manage to be face-achingly funny.

I don't know whether local audiences have become overly familiar with Dame Edna over the past 10 years since she first deigned to bestow her patronage upon San Francisco's humble citizenry, or whether they've simply been emboldened by bouts of pre-show holiday-season drinking. For the crowds at Live and Intimate! seem to be giving the star a run for her gladioli. By far the funniest and most engaging parts of the performance I witnessed involved audience participation. Contrastingly, many of the fully scripted sections, such as Dame Edna's now-mildewed riffs about her gay son, Kenny; her onstage interactions with her maladjusted daughter, Valmai (played with suitable boredom and disgust by Erin-Kate Whitcomb); and her joke about adopting an African baby from "the same village where Madonna shops for her loved ones," seemed canned.

Audience participation has long been Dame Edna's stock-in-trade, which is why the house lights mostly stay up throughout her shows. She often describes her live act as "a conversation between two people — one of whom is more interesting than the other," and I'm hard pressed to think of any comic performers who can bend theatergoers to their will more artfully than she can. In Live and Intimate! — as in many of her shows — she begins by quizzing several theatergoers and then keeps things cozy by periodically referring back to those same folks throughout. The questions are mundane. For example, she asks about what they're wearing, their marital status, and where they live. But her memory for the few prosaic details she learns from these random theatergoers is startling, as is her ability to squeeze a laugh out of almost every answer. It's amazing really. Some of her zingers, such as the one in which she asks a female patron for her name, only to reply, "That's a pretty old name for a pretty old woman!" date back to the birth of music hall. But they're inexplicably hilarious anyway.

It helps that many people who go to see Dame Edna's shows these days know her, adore her, and actually want to be singled out by her. I didn't have high expectations for a hackneyed bit involving a faux marriage ceremony between two selected audience members, on this night an effete-looking middle-aged man with a buzz cut and a bad case of laryngitis, and a gaunt Virginia Woolf look-alike in flowing clothes. But when Dame Edna pulled out a telephone and called the groom's sister, Maureen, in Daly City on speakerphone to share the news of the impromptu nuptials, the fun began. I've seen Dame Edna perform similar phone tricks, but the result was never so satisfying. As it happened, Maureen had been at the show the night before, and proceeded to berate the Dame for not flinging a gladioli stem in her direction during the previous night's finale. She also mentioned her brother's ambitions to become a voiceover artist. "He'll have to get over his laryngitis first," Dame Edna said.

Dame Edna scored even better results with her chat show routine involving four audience members as guests. Jane, a robust, loudmouthed woman from Pacifica, was a retired penguin keeper who currently runs animal "sex tours" at San Francisco Zoo. Jane and Edna became an impromptu comedy duo. Jane made un-PC comments about having a short Brazilian housekeeper, while Dame Edna drew a link between Jane's penguins and the nuns at the Catholic schools Jane attended. An elderly male interviewee, affectionately dubbed "Senior" by Dame Edna, gave an impressive, full-blown rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof. Onstage pianist Andrew Ross swiftly picked up the key and played along. "I have never before in my life felt superfluous," Dame Edna said after Senior was through. And, in perhaps the most surprising ad-libbed moment of the evening, a tiny woman with gray bangs and an elfin face vehemently declared, when asked whether her husband was still alive, "No. I'm so glad he's dead, and I hope he's in hell."

In his book, Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization, John Lahr calls the Dame "a celebration of contradictions." If Live and Intimate! celebrates anything, it's the contradiction between her rampant egotism and her remarkable selflessness. "I don't pick on people, I empower them," Dame Edna said the night I saw the show. She's right. For as much as she puts down us hapless little "possums," she's also capable of bringing out the best in us.



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