Edna, we hardly knew ye

Dame Edna Everage Tour
The grand Dame Edna (aka Barry Humphries, center) is back in San Francisco for what she’s calling a final bow in Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre through March 22. Photos courtesy of SHN

Tremble those gladdies, possums. Our dear Dame Edna is departing. She’s not shaking off this mortal coil (for her that somehow seems tacky), but she is saying a final goodbye. Sort of. Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour is playing SHN’s Orpheum Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 22, and while it feels like comic business as usual for Australia’s greatest import since Vegemite, there is something final-feeling about this farewell.

The inspired creation of comedian Barry Humphries, Dame Edna is a gigastar whose celebrity seemingly knows no bounds. Humphries and his bespectacled alter-ego may be 81 (Edna says she’s approaching 60 “from the wrong direction”), but they’re still pretty light in their high heels. To call Glorious Goodbye a new show is being generous. If you’ve seen any of the Dame’s shows here in the last 17 years, you’ve pretty much seen/heard everything here – and that’s just fine. Consider this a victory lap for one of the great stage comedians. If Edna insults the alarmingly boring attire of her audience once, she does it a dozen times. She picks out some friendly (and poorly dressed, naturally) folks in the audience – Sally, Marja, Heather, Sandra and some old dopey senior citizen who thinks he’s on a cruise but likes the sparkle and movement – and keeps a conversation going with all of them, asking questions about their hum-drum lives and careers. In Act 2 she brings up two unlikely people – Kyle and Judy at Wednesday’s performance – and tells them they’re destined for intimacy. She then marries them and attempts to share the news with their families over a quaint contraption known as a hard-wired telephone. Of course neither Kyle nor Judy could remember any phone numbers because they’re all in their mobile phones. But Kyle, bless his heart, managed to remember his mother’s number only to get her voicemail. Undaunted by, as she put it, her show going down the toilet (“You’ll be able to tell your grandchildren!” she cried), Dame Edna left the world’s weirdest voicemail message, complete with audience participation.

Dame Edna 2

Humphries is simply a genius when it comes to audience participation. “What an attractive woman you are…compared to some of these others,” Edna says to someone sitting too close to the stage. When someone describes her bedspread as burgundy and brown, Edna’s lips do the Everage splits – upper goes north, lower goes south – and the eyes roll. “What color was it originally?” she wonders. He can handle every situation, cover every stumble and unearth every little insult and then smooth it with, “I mean that in a lovely, reverent way.”

Oh, sure. There’s a “show” wrapped around the audience interaction: some songs (with Jonathan Tessero on piano) and some dancers (Ralph Coppola, Brooke Pascoe, Eve Prideaux and Armando Yearwood Jr.), and of course there are well-worn video clips, but in essence, this is the same show we saw when Dame Edna truly broke into the U.S. theater scene in 1998 at the Theatre on the Square (now the San Francisco Playhouse). Playful and insulting, blissfully self-centered and oblivious to much of reality, Dame Edna has always been (and remains) a theatrical invention of the highest order.

Having now been on stage in a dress for 60 years, Humphries can be excused for wanting to step out of the mauve wig and rhinestone swirl and do other things (like rest). The most touching part of the new show, and its only dramatic difference from previous outings is Humphries’ arrival, sans dress and glittery aura, for a bittersweet curtain call. If previous farewell tours were a bit of a joke, this one feels more like the real thing. We’ve been treated to a generous helping of Dame Edna. We’re grateful for every barbed joke and eye roll. We’ll miss the grand Dame, but her legacy – filled with grinning possums and waving gladioli – lives on…at least until the next farewell tour.

Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour continues through Sunday, March 22 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$210. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Review: `Dame Edna: Live and Intimate in Her First Last Tour’

Dame Edna warbles her way through songs and insults audience member like nobody’s business in her new show, Dame Edna: Live and Intimate in Her First Last Tour, at San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre. Photo by kevinberne.com

Familiar shtick hobbles grand Dame’s latest outing
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Nobody works an audience like Dame Edna.

Ten years ago, Bay Area audiences were gleefully brutalized by Australian actor Barry Humphries’ most celebrated creation in Dame Edna’s Royal Tour. That show injected new life into the Dame’s late-life career and eventually landed her on Broadway, where she won a special Tony Award.

The last couple times Edna has been back to San Francisco, she has played the Broadway-size Curran Theatre, but now that she’s back to celebrate both her 10th anniversary revival in San Francisco and her 50th year in show business, she’s back in the cozy confines of the Post Street Theatre, where we fell for her a decade ago (when the space was called Theatre on the Square).

In Dame Edna: Live and Intimate in Her First Last Tour, which opened Sunday and continues into early January, the glittery, mauve-haired dame holds court in all the usual ways – and that’s both a joy and a problem.

When it comes to interacting with – and insulting – audience members, Edna is in a class all her own. She insults the folks in the balcony, chiding them for their poverty, though instead of calling them paupers this time out, she describes them as “nouveau pauvre” and calls them Les Miserables.

She makes fun of a woman near the stage for attempting to make her own clothes and failing miserably, and then chides senior citizens for being old and attempts to dazzle them by jiggling the rhinestones on her glittery dress.

There’s the traditional tossing of the gladioli at the end of the show and references to her gay son Kenny, though Edna is still hoping he’ll meet Ms. Right someday. She leads the audience in the sing-along “Friends of Kenny,” which she says has become her signature song since introducing it during the Royal Tour. Andrew Ross capably accompanies Edna and gives her a few polite nudges when she veers off track.

The frocks (designed by John Van Gastel and Stephen Adnitt) are garishly gorgeous – the puffy, rainbow jacket that opens the second act might actually be a parade float – and the winged spectacles are as sparkly as ever.

Even though we meet Edna’s estranged daughter Valmai (played by the wonderful San Francisco actress Erin-Kate Whitcomb, who really could stand to be more than just a glorified stage assistant), there’s not much new in this outing.

Edna befriends women in the audience and later invites them up on stage to be part of a proposed HBO talk show. Opening night’s group was less than scintillating, though there was a woman celebrating her 93rd birthday who had been singled out by the Dame at a show 10 years ago.

The first act ends with Edna marrying two of her audiences members (never mind that one was gay and the other was already married), and that’s a cute bit. This is where Edna hauls out the telephone and attempts some improv comedy with a stranger. After a few answering machines, Edna finally got a livewire human, and the show, as Edna had predicted, did not go down the toilet.

As a big Edna fan, I have to express disappointment that this show offers us very little we haven’t seen before. In interviews leading up to his show’s opening, the 74-year-old Humphries said that this show would see the American debut of one of his other characters, cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson, but he’s nowhere to be seen. He appeared in the Austin run of this show but has disappeared.

There is a surprise guest in the show, but the appearance is part of an awkwardly structured ending that isn’t nearly as satisfying as it should or could be.

As familiar as much of the material seems, Humphries is still a deft comedian, and Edna gets off some very funny lines. She says she has adopted a baby from “the same village where Madonna shops for her loved ones.”

And she bought Sarah Palin an Atlas and sent it care of the North Pole. But Palin, though happy with the gift, was disappointed in it because she couldn’t find “overseas.”

The subtitle of the show is “A meditation on gender and post-election trauma,” which is a bit of a joke because the show is neither. If Edna mentioned President-elect Obama, I missed it. She did mention Lehman Brothers and the bombed-out crater that is the stock market, but the focus of the show is on audience interaction.

When you go to the show – and if you haven’t ever seen Dame Edna, you really should at least once – dress nicely or you’ll hear about it. And if one-on-one interaction with an Australian gigastar who’s actually a man in a dress scares you, consider sitting in the balcony.


Dame Edna: Live and Intimate in Her First Last Tour continues through Jan. 4 at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $58-$78. Call 415-771-6900 or visit www.ticketmaster.com for information.

Nothin’ like this Dame: Humphries returns, Edna in tow

Creative schizophrenia is a common occurrence in show biz. You’ve got actors, writers and sometimes even directors donning different personalities in the name of storytelling and entertainment.

Nowhere was this fascinating split personality more evident than when interviewing comic genius Barry Humphries and his most famous creation, Dame Edna Everage.

The goal was to talk to creator and creation for a Theatre Bay Area magazine story (coming soon to http://www.theatrebayarea.org/mag/mag.jsp) in conjunction with the Dame’s new show coming to San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre (where it’s in previews now and officially opens Sunday, Nov. 23).

I was delighted by the assignment, having been a fan of both Edna and Humphries for years. I had interviewed both before and was excited to experience some of Humphries’ improv brilliance.

But let me tell you, interviewing a character is a strange experience (as it must be for Humphries to be interviewed in character – talk about concentration and chops!).

When I spoke to Humphries, he was doing a quick stopover in San Francisco and the previous night had appeared as Dame Edna at Macy’s Passport fashion fundraiser. In addition to kissing Mayor Gavin Newsom, Edna had auctioned herself off to the highest bidder (all in the name of charity, of course).

“I don’t know what will come of that,” Humphries mused.

We talked about Edna’s golden jubilee – 50 years since her creation – last year, and how this year’s return to San Francisco marks 10 years since Edna’s appearance at the Theatre on the Square (now the Post Street) sparked a late-career renaissance that led to a special Tony Award on Broadway.

Humphries is an erudite man, and conversation with him always takes surprising turns.

From Edna’s outrageous onstage high jinks, we skittered around to Humphries’ early days in comedy when he would play outrageous pranks on the public such as planting food in a garbage can near a busy restaurant, dressing as a street person and then wandering by, digging through the trash and eating what he “finds.” And then there was the trick with the canned soup and the air sick bag, but that’s a little gross.

“I’ve always thought of myself as Dadaist in the old European sense,” Humphries says. “I’ve always been very entertained and stimulated by that particular art movement. Through that I drifted into the theater. I really didn’t consciously choose acting. I did shows at university intended to outrage people.”

Humphries, it seemed, loved to shame the audience by enticing them to boo and heckle someone on stage, then reveal the person was blind and not really part of the show.

“I would trick them into derision and then trick them into feeling terrible shame and regret,” he says. “I enjoyed doing things of that kind.”

In later years, even as Edna, Humphries would still pull tricks such as having stunt people seated in a box in the theater, then when Edna begins hurling gladioli at the end of the show, they’d overreach to grab a flower and fall out of the box (they were outfitted with a safety harness, but the terrified audience didn’t know that).

“The whole audience was standing up, trying to assist and practically climbing up the stucco walls,” Humphries recalls. “Then Edna would say something like, `Isn’t that awful! Wouldn’t it be terrible if that happened every night!’ The audience was tricked into feeling terrible alarm and panic, but the stunt itself was very expensive – more than it cost to have four dancers in the show. But it was worth it.”

Humphries realizes the interview has hit the 30-minute mark, and politely signs off. The plan was to switch personae and spend the next 30 minutes as Dame Edna, but apparently he’s pooped and begs off the Edna interview.

A few weeks later, I call Humphries’ native Australia to talk with the Dame, and this is what I was greeted with: “Hello, darling Chad. You’ve caught me doing my toenails. I like to do them myself. I don’t like a strange woman fiddling with my extremities.”

Discussing how happy she is to be returning to San Francisco, Dame Edna says when in town, she often stays with society doyenne Denise Hale. “I don’t understand a word she says, but I adore that little Serbian minx. Hence the term `acerbic.’ Every aspect of San Fran I love.”

The grand Dame likes to work personal details of her interviewer into the conversation. She offers congratulations on a recent marriage and sends greetings to the new spouse. Then she offers an astrological observation: “You are such a typical Leo. It’s that growling thing you do. And you’re carnivorous.”

Last time she was in San Francisco, Edna revealed that she had been to local gay author Armistead Maupin’s wedding. “There was no sign of the bride. But something very excited happened. I caught his bouquet.”

Trying to get the conversation back on track proved impossible, but the ride was an awful lot of fun.


Dame Edna: Live and Intimate in Her First Last Tour continues through Jan. 4 at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $58-$78. Call 415-771-6900 or visit www.ticketmaster.com for information.

Here’s footage of Humphries and Dame Edna meeting:

Heads up, possums: Edna’s back!

Mega-superstar and truth teller Dame Edna Everage (aka Barry Humphries) is coming back to San Francisco, her spiritual home, and, if the dame is to be believed, the home of her fashion designer son, Kenny, and her lesbian pit bull trainer daughter, Esme.

The International Housewife, Therapist, Gigastar, Fashion Icon, Guru and Swami today proclaimed she will appear at San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre for a limited engagement beginning Nov. 20 and continue through Jan. 4, 2009. Opening Night is set for Nov. 23, 2008. Tickets go on sale today at the Post Street Theatre box office, by phone at 415-771-6900 and on the web at www.ticketmaster.com.

Dame Edna is currently crafting a new and uniquely intimate offering on her private multi-million-acre, possum-infested luxury estate in her native Australia.

All will soon be revealed with Dame Edna – Live and Intimate in Her First Last Tour to her adoring and loyal American audiences. She will display her unique genius with a new and vibrantly stimulating theatrical infrastructure (to use her own vivid phrase), addressing an exciting range of cutting edge comedy solutions.

On making the announcement, Dame Edna said today “I don’t do shows Possums, I make History! In a spooky way I am theater in the making. My shows are really not shows at all, they are not Events; they are MIRACLES which you can proudly tell your grandchildren you witnessed.”

Dame Edna has been revealing her Entertainment Solutions both on Broadway and the length and breadth of America for the last nine years, and never have Americans needed to laugh, cry and give standing ovations as much as they do today. Dame Edna’s performances have won a Tony Award and one Tony Nomination and countless critical awards.

Dame Edna says “I am coming to your hometown with the glorious gift of laughter for a night you will never forget. See you there Possums”

Tickets range in price from $58-$78 for regular performances. All seats for preview performances (November 20 – 22) and Opening Night are $55.

Visit Dame Edna’s official Web site here: www.dame-edna.com

Here’s Dame Edna interviewing k.d. lang: