The dame delivers a night of laughs


October 23, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

I don't even think of this as a show - any more than you do by now," Dame Edna says, deflecting potential criticism, in A Night with Dame Edna, The Show That Cares.

Like Dame Edna herself, her performance is more of a phenomenon than anything else. It'll almost certainly put a smile on your face, but you may come out of the Mechanic Theatre feeling as if you've attended an extremely idiosyncratic nightclub or cruise-ship act, instead of the theater.

Here's a little background, in case you've never caught the Grande Dame on a talk show or during her stint on Fox's Ally McBeal. Although she refuses to admit it, Dame Edna is actually a drag character played by Australian actor Barry Humphries (credited in the Playbill as the show's "deviser and writer").

A few of her trademarks: Edna - who insists on the feminine pronoun - uses the word "possum" as a term of endearment, revels in being politically incorrect, claims she is psychic and has a penchant for picking on theatergoers ("in a caring and loving way").

As all of this might suggest, Dame Edna is something of an acquired taste. Honored with a special Tony Award in 2000, she's making her Baltimore debut. And it's safe to say that Mechanic patrons - two of whom will end up eating a meal on stage each night and numerous others who will find themselves waving gladioli (Edna's "signature flower") - have probably never seen a show quite like this.

There is, as Edna once again is the first to point out, no plot. And though she's joined on stage by two chorus girls (Teri DiGianfelice and Michelle Pampena) as well as a gifted piano player (Wayne Barker), there are no characters - with the exception, of course, of Edna herself.

What there is instead is Edna "lovingly" criticizing her audience members' tastes in clothing and home decor and also discussing her own family: Her late husband, Norm, who suffered from a chronic "prostate murmur"; her talented son, Kenny, who designs all her clothes; and her estranged daughter, Valmai, whom Edna claims is now living in a trailer in Pigtown, raising pit bulls.

Pigtown is one of many local references Humphries weaves into the show, beginning with comments about the Mechanic Theatre itself, which Edna designates a "neo-brutalist gem." Lexington Market, John Waters and crab cakes also get a mention. The denizens of Charm City are dubbed "Baltimoronics." And Edna has a field day with the notion of "detached" houses.

In the first half of the evening, Edna sets up a number of running jokes involving audience members. These jokes pay off after intermission, when the chosen few wind up on stage.

Her best bit on opening night, however, came in the second act when she plucked a young married couple from the front row and brought them on stage for a session of marriage counseling. This counseling involved calling the wife's mother, whose responses were broadcast throughout the theater.

Edna and her two "Ednaettes" perform a couple of song-and-dance routines in the course of the show, and Edna struts her stuff in several glam gowns, including a red-white-and-blue sequined "patriotic frock" and a pale blue velvet curtain-call robe with gold wings sprouting from the shoulder blades. Her wardrobe, however, can scarcely compete with her wisteria-colored bouffant wig and rhinestone-trimmed eyeglasses, whose exaggerated cat's-eye points could probably double as lethal weapons.

Dame Edna refers to her show as "a three-step program: You come, you laugh, you leave." Those may not be the loftiest of goals, but they are certainly ones that Edna achieves. As to those gold wings, well, heaven help us all if Edna is any example of the angels residing behind the Pearly Gates.

A Night with Dame Edna

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Nov. 2

Tickets: $22.50-$60

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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