Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sisters Grimm: Summertime in the Garden of Eden (Theatre Works and Griffin Theatre)

Ash Flanders and Declan Greene -- a.k.a. Sisters Grimm -- take the cardinal compass points of sex and sexuality, race and gender identification, and spin them like a roulette wheel.

Every single element of a Sisters Grimm production arrives with a pair of inverted commas hovering close by. Some individual elements, like the beautiful and hirsute Southern belle Daisy May (played by self-proclaimed pirate, mermaid and stripper Agent Cleave), are more inverted than others. Cleave is playing a “woman” rather than a woman. So far, so queer.

Agent Cleave (Check out AC performing with Peaches, here.)

By contrast, the casting of Bessie Holland as the widowed patriarch Big Daddy is more like gender-blind casting. There isn’t an actor this side of Colonel Harland Sanders’ resting place in Louisville Kentucky better suited to playing a civil wartime plantation owner. Holland recycles every hoary old cliché of cinematic melodrama and finds extraordinary authenticity within them. Watching Holland, one is constantly aware that one is watching the impossible: a caricature made flesh. And, thus, one is constantly alert. To detail and to possibilities.

Genevieve Giuffre is another miraculous actor. Her natural facility is to play goofy. But on the strength of her performances this year you wouldn’t hesitate to cast her as Desdemona or Othello. Or, indeed, Iago. Here, Greene has cast her as Mammy, an obedient, spiritual-singing, middle-aged black maid.

More precisely, Giuffre plays a dreaded and bling-wearing modern urban woman pretending to be subservient, though Mammy stops short of Uncle Tom-style self-deprecation. It’s this aspect of the production -- with its use of golliwogs -- that causes the most heart-burn. And provokes the most laughter. Squirming and nervous laughter.

That laughter is a means, however, not an end. Likewise, the sexual intrigue in this savage Garden of Eden is less about the shame of miscegenation than it is about closeted homosexuality and denied desire.

The setting is the deep south at the start of the American Civil War. Big Daddy is making preparations for a party to welcome home his prodigal daughter Honey Sue (Olympia Bukkakis) who fled the fold the night of her 16th birthday, a decade or so earlier.

While family members and Daisy May’s devious fiancé Clive (Peter Paltos) jockey for a share of Big Daddy’s estate, the old order -- slavery included -- is collapsing around them.

Summertime in the Garden of Eden is another mind-blowing outing from an ingenious and increasingly consistent company. But it’s not a play for the faint of heart or the easily offended.

Summertime in the Garden of Eden by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene. Sisters Grimm. Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street St Kilda, until November 16. Then SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, for Griffin Theatre, November 20 to December 14.

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