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I, the tasteful one

Barry Humphries speaks his mind. But it's usually by way of his rhinestone-laden alter ego Dame Edna. Enjoy now, if you will, a vulgar day out with the campy stage star -- sans the glasses and cotton-candy hair.

March 14, 2004|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Cleveland — This city is so lovely at this time of year. Just ask Dame Edna Everage, gracious star of "A Night With Dame Edna: The Show That Cares," appearing during this precious moment between Midwestern winter and spring at Cleveland's Palace Theatre.

Like the whopping rhinestones in her jewelry, Dame Edna fits perfectly into any setting. She is much happier sharing her loving, caring observations here than she would be on Broadway, "in front of nicely dressed people." She exhorts the "paupers" in the balcony -- les miserables -- to hold on tight to prevent "a downpour of the disadvantaged, a Niagara of nonentities" from tumbling over the edge.

She even proves willing to share her secret to happiness with America's industrial Midwest: the ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others.

Despite the almost unseemly love that flows between Dame Edna and her dear Ohio "possums" as they wave their gladioluses during the show's finale, the man behind the glittering glasses, Barry Humphries, says fans rarely venture backstage. Why, he asks, would one want to spoil the fantasy by exposing oneself to a tweedy, soft-spoken 69-year-old Australian character actor who is nothing like the Dame?

It's not as though Humphries seeks to deny his existence; he simply chooses to divorce it from Edna's. And divorce is something in which Humphries -- a father of four now happily married to fourth wife Lizzie Spender, daughter of British poet Sir Stephen Spender -- has some expertise.

Humphries receives program credit as "deviser and writer" and includes a biography that reveals Humphries created Mrs. Norm Everage, the dowdy Melbourne housewife who has since morphed into the glorious Dame Edna, in 1955.

Still, Humphries usually chooses to deal with the press via brief interviews as Dame Edna by phone to avoid getting into the elaborate costume and makeup. So spending a day -- or more accurately, the hours between breakfast and his regular pre-show nap -- with Humphries, as Humphries, in lovely, lovely Cleveland is an uncommon privilege.

The actor is discovered looking lost outside the Ritz-Carlton, in brown felt hat, plaid scarf and black Burberry coat, near the limousine that will whisk us to the renowned Cleveland Museum of Art. Something Edna-ites may not know: Humphries is an artist, whose works are represented by Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane, Australia.

"I've painted since my earliest youth, and I've always been quite good, I must admit," he says. "I was very good at doing caricatures of schoolmasters in particular, and I guess I am a theatrical caricaturist today." Now, he paints landscapes, often traveling with his easel, calling the work a form of meditation.

Humphries declines to anoint himself a connoisseur of art but says: "I've always been keen on it. I've had a large number of collections; every time I get divorced, I lose all my pictures and start again -- it's a good idea, really. I bestow them upon these lovely women who kindly marry me. I turn them into art collectors."

He refuses to be photographed in the limo; Humphries finds such vehicles "horrible, vulgar." During the vulgar, horrible ride, he stares out a window, reacting with Edna-ish concern to the blighted blocks that characterize a city that can also boast one of the country's finest art museums. He recalls the same phenomenon in Detroit and in Louisville. "It all looks a bit like Dusseldorf in 1945," he observes.

Cornering the local angle

Humphries tailors his show to the city he's in. Beginning Thursday, it's beautiful, beautiful Costa Mesa, where Dame Edna will appear at the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Segerstrom Hall. When he hits town, he quizzes the journalists who interview him. "Who's the local fat lady? Who's the socialite who gets on everyone's nerves? Who's the corrupt mayor? What's the latest scandal?" he asks. "You know which is the Jewish suburb, where the ghetto is, the trailer park, where the nouveau riche live. And because Edna doesn't know about political correctness, she feels no real harm in telling the truth."

He tries to figure out what might offend a local audience -- then makes sure to include it. "There is a kind of gasp at the slightest thing, really. People are very unused to the frankness that Edna dispenses," he says. "It's rather enjoyable to slightly shock."

He remains disoriented by America's definition of Cleveland as the Midwest, since it's not in the middle. Still, the United States is so vast that Humphries believes he can go on playing Edna here forever.

A megahit in London in the mid-1970s with his show "Housewife Superstar!," Humphries soon tested New York. Through word of mouth, people began to discover the show. Then along came a certain critic from the New York Times. He waited 20 more years to return to performing in the States: "I thought he should be dead by then," he says of the disparaging reviewer, whom he does not name.

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