Review: The Pitch, The Sound of Music Drag Show ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Review: The Pitch, The Sound of Music Drag Show

COMEDY FESTIVAL: The Pitch, written and performed by Peter Houghton. Directed by Anne Browning, sound design by David Franzke, lighting by Paul Jackson. The Beckett @ The Malthouse until April 28. The Sound of Music Drag Show, directed by Jessica James. With Jessica James, Kris Del Vayse, Amanda Monroe, Jackie Stevens, Roxy Bullwinkle and Jillette Jones. Drags Aloud @ the Bosco, Federation Square, Melbourne Comedy Festival until April 15.

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is one of those events that throws me completely. This year I cowered pathetically before the program: like, how many acts? So I'm afraid that if this is coverage, then a postage stamp is an overcoat. Luckily for cybernauts, indefatigable bloggers Avi of The Rest is Just Commentary and Richard Watts of Man About Town are better men than I am: they are stoutly braving the crowds and seeing stuff and even writing about it. Me, I've managed to get to two of the 250 or so shows that are whirling around town at the moment. I laughed all the way through both of them, so, despite everything, TN's horse sense still seems to be working.

Peter Houghton's one-man show The Pitch is the Malthouse's contribution to the festival. These days Houghton is riding high: earlier this month, he swept the board at the Green Room Awards, winning best actor and writer gongs for both The Pitch and his brilliant performance of Hamm in Eleventh Hour's production of Endgame. And the word on this show was glowing: a couple of my spies told me it was the best thing they saw at La Mama last year. Sadly, I missed its debut. It must have been quite something in that intimate space.

Rest assured that the hype is warranted. The Pitch, a sardonic take on that predatory mirage known as the film industry, is hilarious from beginning to end. The conceit is that Walter Weinermann, a hapless screenwriter whose love life is mess, is about to pitch his screenplay to a panel of producers. There are three of them: an Englishman who distributes films in Europe, a tough-guy American producer chewing a cigar, and an Australian academic bureaucrat. Somehow Weinermann's script has to please all three of them if he's to get any money to make the movie.

In the hour before this crucial meeting, Weinermann runs through his screenplay, fine-tuning it according to the four Big Rules as laid out by Sid, the American producer. "I'm talking about the actual stories that make the world go round," says Sid. "Four of them son. Just four." The four stories are, for reference, "being more than what you are", getting over disadvantage, love (of course) and revenge.

This conceit permits a glorious pisstake on practically every Hollywood cliche you can poke a stick at. The only thing missing is a car chase: I really think Houghton covers everything else, complete with sound effects. Running underneath is a sly comment on the links between cultural and military imperialism, as the movie shifts from the Hindu Kush in the 1930s (when imperial power was British) to present day Afghanistan.

In between is a nonsensical action movie that shifts from a smokey Paris jazz club to the mysterious Orient "where nothing is what it seems", from a surreal performance of Macbeth to an International Rap Competition. It involves spies, war, romance, assassination, a tribal Afghani who "spent a lot of time in the Bronx", the obligatory comic sidekick, a plane crash and lots of shooting. And it stars, well, practically everyone - Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, Robert de Niro and "that guy with the eyes from The Lord of the Rings". Though Weinermann isn't sure whether his hero will be Russell Crowe or Clint Eastwood, and supplies alternative lines for each possible casting.

The script doesn't miss a beat, and neither does Houghton's performance. Aside from anything else, there's the exhilaration of watching a virtuosic actor at the full stretch of his physical and vocal skills. And Houghton's Robert de Niro impersonation is really something to see.

The following night, down at Federation Square, I trickled into the Bosco, a brightly painted wooden tent which is hospitably hosting a number of Comedy Festival acts, to see The Sound of Music Drag Show. Last year it became the longest running drag show ever in Melbourne, and also won the Rainbow Award for Best Drag Show. It's easy to see why.

This is rough theatre at its rudest and most uproarious. Its cast of six re-enacts, to a rather free version of the Julie Andrews sound track (it segues into funk or Europop at a moment's notice), a scatalogical version of The Sound of Music. Maria (Jessica James) is not quite the sylph-like innocent of the movie, Captain von Trapp (Kris del Vayse) has a serious problem with flatulence, the Baroness (Roxie Bullwinkle) is a predatory vamp, and the children (who have been whittled down to four) are, if it's possible, even more unspeakable than they are in the film. And the nuns rock.

The ideal of the happy family saved by song takes a few slaps in the course of the show, and of course there's the hypnotic performance of femininity that is drag itself. Fascinatingly, you get a broad spectrum of the feminine here: the six performers are a wide variety of shapes, sizes and ages. It's fair to say that gender is a free-floating entity: when the queens dress as men, they still sport very impressive breasts.

It is as much a tribute to The Sound of Music as it is a high-spirited parody. Part of its charm is the chance to hear again all those classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, and to remember how good they are. They're certainly robust enough to survive the disrespectful treatment. The cossies are fabulously over the top, the choreography is winning, and the sheer energy irresistible. And the performers seem to be having as much fun as the audience.

Pictures from top: Peter Houghton as Clint Eastwood in The Pitch, photo Jeff Busby; Jessica James as Maria in The Sound of Music Drag Show