‘This is how theatre used to be immersive before the fourth wall: a participatory ritual of joy and storytelling and song.’ Robert Reid on Calamity Jane
It has been a good year in the theatre: there have been, on balance, some terrific worlds created on Melbourne stages. But much of 2018 has possessed a horrifying and absurd theatricality, which was reflected in much contemporary theatre and dance I saw this year: dark thinking in dark places from intelligent and sensitive people.
Thank god I get to finish with One Eyed Man’s production of Calamity Jane: it’s utter joy. The whole event is a sorely needed entremets in a hard and bitter year.
As we enter the Fairfax Theatre at Arts Centre Melbourne, festoons of bare bulbs stretch out from the stage over the auditorium in a chaotic spiderweb that draws us into the stage. The cast is milling around the auditorium in character from the beginning, welcoming and chatting with audience members. There are some unconvincing fake moustaches and broad cartoony American accents on display. Lotta y’alls and a couple of l’il ladies. The One Eyed Man production of Calamity Jane already feels like an archly self-aware musical.
A handful of people are let in through a different door. At first I think that there are so many people, they’ve had to open those odd single-row balcony seats in the Fairfax, but no; once inside it’s apparent that these are the chosen ones, who get to sit onstage around tables as part of Henry Miller’s saloon. But we all are: there’s never a moment that it doesn’t feel like we’re part of the show. We play the good people of Deadwood in what Calamity Jane (Virginia Gay) describes at one point as an immersive theatre production.
The production establishes a convivial atmosphere from the beginning by carefully situating us in a role that is one small shift from the one we are already used to playing. Instead of a polite and slightly sniffily distant Melbourne audience at the Arts Centre, we’re the rough and liquored-up prospectors of a cartoon Wild West who just wanna hear us some pianee. The rules of engagement are largely the same as usual, with a shade more anything goes. Crucially, the ensemble remains in control of the interaction the whole evening. They’re confident and careful and the audience, the playing audience, trusts them implicitly.
The liberal audience interaction never feels creepy or intrusive…. (Fair warning, those in the front rows of the onstage seating should prepare to get wet and maybe a tiny bit grossed out.) The cast is charming, adorable and manifestly talented. I do enjoy seeing a show that makes use of every skill their team has. Oh, you play the tuba? – Great, that can go here!
I know there’s a lot about interaction in this review, but it’s still in my head because I just wrote this long essay about it. Calamity Jane isn’t immersive in the Punchdrunk sense of overwhelming design, nor even in the “you’re the centre of this experience” sense explored by One Step at a Time. This is how theatre used to be immersive before the fourth wall: a participatory ritual of joy and storytelling and song.
The jokes and ad-libs need a little updating to remain relevant. Asides about La La Land-gate and alternative facts were fresh and satirical a year ago when this production debuted, but now they feel dated. It highlights how quickly the social media cycle turns the recent past into ancient history, how quickly we normalise our horror. If these comments aren’t utterly contemporary they lose their edge, instead eliciting a kind of nostalgia. I guess it’s laughter either way, and it’ll vary from audience to audience; but this show is so good in so many other respects, I just want it to be this little bit better.
Calamity Jane is cartoonish in its exaggerations of types, with broadly drawn characters and themes, but there’s a lot underneath this cheery, boozy, brawly world of singin’ and dancin’: a lot of dark, bad shit. Wild Bill Hickcock (Anthony Gouley, treading a tightrope between comic and campy black hat tough guy) died with a bullet to the temple at 39 during a poker game holding aces and eights, the dead man’s hand. Calamity wearsGeneral Custer’s Union army coat to hide her finery (her femininity) before she heads to a ball.(Even Doris Day’s Calamity wore a Union army cap). And Deadwood is a town with, it seems, no people of colour, and certainly no First Nations people. Maybe they’re not allowed in the bar. The Civil War and colonial expansion rage just in the wings of Calamity Jane.
As well, the work echoes the age in which it was written: the straight-laced 1950s and its strong pull towards white patriarchal hegemony, the normalisation of the centre, and its erasure of plurality, difference and diversity. The politics of the time is sharply contrasted with the witty, winky One Eyed Man staging, and the production finds every opportunity to emphasise Calamity’s gender fluidity.
The original, by James O’Hanlon, Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain, works very hard to put Calamity back in her box as a proper woman. As David Thomson commented in the Independent:
…the forlorn purpose of the film – this is very much according to 1953 – is to make the gal behave like a lady. She makes friends with a saloon showgirl, and Doris [Day as Calamity-Ed] (who had a famously good figure) suddenly realises that women have different bodies from men. In no time at all, she’s turned her ramshackle cabin into a darling domesticated cottage, she’s wearing dresses, she’s done her hair and she’s singing Once I had a Secret Love (for Bill, of course).
One Eyed Man ships Calamity and Katie Brown (Laura Bunting) pretty damn hard, searching out every moment in the text that can be read as attraction between the two, turning A Woman’s Touch into an awkward flirtation that becomes a firm re-establishment of boundaries. The company pulls Calamity in one direction and the text pulls her back in another.
The tension of these two versions of Calamity, her obsession with Danny Gilmartin (Matthew Peirce) and her new feelings for Katie, pull tight at the ball when she discovers Danny and Katie in each other’s arms. I honestly expected Calamity to call Katie’s name first and then to “correct” herself with an awkward “uh, I mean, Danny”. Certainly, her rage at Katie (she threatens to kill her: she’s got issues, our Calamity) seems more than just “you stole my man”. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but to me it sure seemed more like “But I thought we…”
All this makes the moment when she and Hickock confess their love for each other (after she presents as CIS gendered in a dress, sadly) come as something of a blindside. The dominant paradigm of the day reasserts itself, so that everyone marries the right person in the end. Even so, when Calamity and Bill sing Secret Love, it’s hard not to imagine Calamity and Katie singing it. Plus Ginny and Laura are outside the theatre afterwards with the rest of the cast around a piano. As we reach the foyer, they’re singing Katie Perry’s I Kissed a Girl.
If all this were not enough to make Calamity Jane worth seeing, their heart-stoppingly beautiful rendition of Black Hills of Dakota alone is worth the price of admission.
It’s sold out at Arts Centre Melbourne, but there is a season extension in the New Year at the Comedy Theatre. Get them while you can. Get on the stage with them if you can. This show needs to play forever, like The Mousetrap. Sorry team. This is your career now: as a public service to the country, nay the world, you need to keep doing this show. And lord help us when you die.
Calamity Jane, Adapted by Ronald Hanmer and Phil Park from the stage play by Charles K. Freeman, after the Warner Bros. film written by James O’Hanlon, lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, music by Sammy Fain. Director Richard Carroll. Musical Director Nigel Ubrihien. Choreographer Cameron Mitchell. Production Designer Lauren Peters. Lighting Designer Trent Suidgeest. Producer Richard Carroll. Associate Producer Michelle Guthrie. Performed by Virginia Gay, Laura Bunting, Anthony Gooley, Rob Johnson, Christina O’Neill, Matthew Pearce & Tony Taylor. Presented by One Eyed Man Productions in association with Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co. Arts Centre Melbourne until December 23, from January 1 at the Comedy Theatre.
This show contains simulated smoking, nudity, obscene language, strobe lighting and fog/haze effects.
Wheelchair access Assistive hearing Companion Card
Audio description: Sunday December 23, 6:30pm.