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The last time Barry Humphries was in town with his inimitable alter ego was a 2009 stop of Dame Edna: My First Last Tour. If you missed it you’re in luck because the octogenarian drag raconteur with the lavender wig and acidic wit is currently on her second final tour, Dame Edna’s Glorious Good-bye: The Farewell Tour.
This one comes packed with the usual audience-ripping ad libs, goofy dancehall numbers and tales of her journey from average Australian housewife to international busybody and Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Add to that a Tony Award, an Australian Centenary Medal and an honorary doctorate and it’s easy to see that Humphries has achieved a lot in his 60-year career. Even so, with this sometimes hilarious but mainly amusing “final” iteration, it’s probably the right time for Edna to hang up her size nine heels and diamante glasses for good.
After filmed testimonials from people like Hugh Jackman, who recalls Edna pulling him aside for “special time” when he was her student, and Geoffrey Rush, who notes she was “sexually insatiable,” Edna took the stage opening night in front of adoring fans like Pierce Brosnan, Anjelica Huston and George Takei, though those weren’t the faces that caught her eye. Instead it was Anji from Highland Park, Virginia from Beachwood Canyon and Norma the social worker. These three ladies had the unfortunate luck of sitting in the first few rows, directly in Edna’s line of fire, where she dissected their outfits, their homes and even their names. “We all have to struggle for individuality,” she said of the idiosyncratic spelling of Anji’s name.
Insult comedy done wrong can often feel mean-spirited, but no matter how cutting Edna’s comments she can’t help but come off as good-humored, even when she’s tormenting the cheap seats in the upper balcony, promising to glance their way “in exact proportion to what you have paid.” She also turns the lens on herself, recalling the passing of her husband after a struggle with prostate cancer, (lamenting, “how long I lived with my husband’s prostate hanging over my head”), and her son from West Hollywood who has become an entrepreneur. “It’s French for failure,” she explains.
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By the time Edna got to “Me Time,” her big number backed by a quartet of dancers, the goodwill accumulated over her long career still energized the audience even if many of the bits were recycled and not all that funny. A one-man show lasting a whopping two hours and twenty-five minutes implies a strong dose of confidence or a strong dose of daring on the part of Humphries. Either way, it’s a bit too much of a good thing.
When he first discovered Edna back in the mid-1950s, Humphries was a known prankster and Dadaist from Melbourne. The character quickly became a success, shaking up parochial Australian mores and catapulting Humphries to stardom. No doubt a large part of her initial appeal was the outrageous combination of cross-dressing and social commentary. But what once might have passed as outrageous satire has, over the decades, lost any whiff of the outré. Not that it matters much. If all Edna had to offer were gimmicks, she would not have thrived for as long as she has. To the uninitiated she is a pair of cat-eye glasses and a goofy wig, but her fans all know it’s her mischievous wit and nimble tongue that seals the deal.
The second half of the show is more structured than the first, with Edna recalling her recent trip to an Indian ashram. “A trailer park for the soul,” she explained. “The Dalai Lama checked in as Leonard Cohen, and Oprah checked in as the Dalai Lama. Bill Cosby checked in as O.J. Simpson, and he even offered to freshen up my drink.”
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In time, two unfortunates were drawn from the audience to be “solemnized” by Edna in a marriage-like ritual. After the ceremony, relatives were phoned with the good news as the audience listened in. It’s a rich comedic situation that can hardly fail to get laughs, and like a preening puppet master Edna orchestrates it to full effect.
In the end, Edna launched into her final number and, as is her custom, gladioli were distributed throughout the audience and we all became part of the act, swaying our stems in time to the music. It made for a poignant moment if this really is Humphries’ last hurrah, upstaged only by the moment that followed as he appeared in the spotlight out of drag in a double-breasted suit and waggishly tilted fedora. Addressing the audience on Edna’s origins, he beseeched them to come along on his next farewell tour as he wiped away a tear. And they probably will, too.
Cast: Barry Humphries, Ralph Coppola, Brooke Pascoe, Eve Prideaux, Armondo Yearwood, Jr.
Director: Simon Phillips
Playwright: Barry Humphries
Set designer: Brian Thomson
Costume designer: Stephen Adnitt
Lighting designer: Aaron Spivey
Musical director: Jonathan Tessero
Presented by Dainty Group International, Team Edna & the Barry Humphries Conglomerate and Center Theatre Group
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