In the middle ages, kings used to hire jesters to insult them. In that, if in nothing else, "Dame Edna: The Royal Tour" makes us all feel like kings. What makes this show so strange and exhilarating is the way it turns normal theater on its head. Usually we go to a comedy to laugh at what's on stage. Here, we go to be laughed at. Dame Edna Everage was born in Australia 43 years ago. She was invented by the writer and performer Barry Humphries as a satire on suburban values. But she was re-created in the 1970s as a bigger, stranger creature, the Housewife Superstar. Humphries turned her into a wonderful burlesque of celebrity. At first glance, Humphries's Dame Edna seems to belong to a familiar show biz type the female impersonator. With her lurid blue rinse, vulgar accessories and supremely bad taste in clothes, she is the ultimate suburban matron. But really, Edna is nothing like a dame. With his clunky movements, high-pitched bellow and broad shoulders, Humphries is far from the exaggerated femininity of the average, down-home transvestite. What he has created, in fact, is something much weirder, a creature both male and female, both housewife and superstar. He knows how unsettling this uncertainty is, and he uses it to scare us into submission because we ourselves are the joke. Now and then, of course, Dame Edna engages in the kind of satire we expect savage comments on the rich and famous. But mostly, the savagery is directed at us. Or rather at the whole absurdity of a culture in which we pay good money just to be in the presence of a horrible woman like Edna Everage. If the show didn't work like this, it would be very stale by now. Humphries' basic material has changed little in a decade. The stories about Edna's family are familiar to her fans. Her late husband's prostate problems. Her son Kenny and his suspicious interest in antiques, opera and other men. Her daughter Valmai, who lives with a female tennis player. What keeps the show fresh is Humphries' focus on the aspect of theater that is always changing the audience. His stories are the framework on which, like a daring jazz musician, he improvises riffs on the theme of how best to insult the audience. Most of the show is about Dame Edna picking out members of the audience, asking them questions, giving them orders, and abusing their taste in clothes, food and furniture. The comedy lies in the fact we allow this creature, with her own appalling taste, to treat us like this. Ours, Humphries tells us, is a culture so demented that famous people can get away with anything so long as they occasionally nod toward sincerity. And even though the joke is on us, we laugh. We may be making a show of ourselves, but what a wonderful show it is.
“I'm hands on, I'm in your face, I'm here," barks Dame Edna Everage, Australia's "First Lady," while doing little dance steps in a silver dress that might kindly be described as geriatric flapper. Besides having the best gams on Broadway since Dietrich, Edna is, she claims, "probably the most popular and gifted woman in the world today." She'll get no quarrel from me. Her act, "Dame Edna, The Royal Tour: The Show That Listens," is by far the funniest and cleverest show in town.
Edna's creator (and, according to the program, larcenous manager) Barry Humphries is a very sharp, quick-witted, lynx-eyed satirist who came out of Australian comedy in the 1950s and London theater in the 1960s - surroundings roughly equivalent to the Chicago comedy scene that over here produced Mike Nichols and Elaine May. In his Everage persona, created in 1956, Humphries unites, with something like genius, two traditions: the acid, liberal, small-club satire of the 1950s and the broad, conservative humor of the old music hall drag act.
Dame Edna's evening is not heavy on plot (which, she points out, makes it ideal for befuddled seniors). She sings a few funny songs in her eccentric chirp; she brings us up to date on her personal life; she interacts with the audience. Edna is always on top of the latest fashions: she recently discovered, for example, that she was abused (her stepmom made her dry the dishes) and that she is Jewish (and, in fact, related to Madeleine Albright).
A widow for a decade, she still mourns Norm's loss to prostate murmur; this part of the act could be called "The Prostate Monologues" - a lively antidote to "The Vagina Monologues." She is in New York partly to see her children: Kenny's a designer who lives in Chelsea; Valmai raises pit bulls in Flushing. Edna's been well-briefed, by the way, perhaps by contributor Ian Davidson, on nasty New York minutiae.
But the narrative of Edna's life, while absorbing, is largely an excuse to involve the hapless spectators in her world. In general, she enjoys rubbing in the differences between "les miserables" in the balcony and the posh orchestra. In particular, Edna weaves, each evening, elaborate scenarios implicating audience members: the couple who look starved, the woman who looks like she made her own clothes, the senile guy, the woman who left a babysitter at home, the man caught reading his program. Edna remembers every name and toys with them during the show.
"The Royal Tour" is a complexly ironic show that manages to parody both celebrity (there's a not wholly successful bit about the Royal Family and a glorious final tribute to "Edna Power" that involves mass use of gladioli) and ordinariness. It's a tricky balancing act, especially when you're wearing a beaded red gown, like Edna at the end. Has satire ever been so funny since "Beyond the Fringe"?
As Dame Edna Everage pronounces it, the word scorches like a branding iron on soft flesh. She is trying to be polite (sort of), but her semaphoric facial tics clearly signal what this former Australian housewife and newly self-anointed queen of Broadway really thinks of aqua as a color choice for the exterior of a house, even a house in New Jersey.
''Aqua,'' she repeats, reeling across the stage of the Booth Theater, where her delightfully appalling new show, ''Dame Edna: The Royal Tour,'' opened last night. ''I had forgotten about aqua.'' And her jaw drops so low, you expect it to shatter.
This impromptu esthetic commentary occurred in a recent preview performance of ''The Royal Tour.'' It came in response to a New Jersey travel agent in that night's audience, who was chosen by the Dame for a spot of gentle interrogation and whose name, clothing and occupation had already been the subject of piercing observations from the stage. But it was that aqua house that had really gotten to Dame Edna. The Dame herself, please note, was a vision of restrained good taste with her mauve hair, bubble-gum-pink evening wear and eyeglasses suggesting a rococo roller coaster.
Dame Edna Everage, the monstrous creation and alter ego of the comedian Barry Humphries, is living, Technicolor testimony to the fact that humor is based not just on what is said but on who is saying it. If, for example, Anna Wintour, the severely chic editor of Vogue, had been coolly scathing about that aqua-colored house, it wouldn't have been funny at all. If Joan Rivers had been doing the disses, it might have been funny but also rather unpleasant.
With Dame Edna, who is as unexpurgated an insult wielder as Ms. Rivers and Jackie Mason, the barbs tickle instead of sting, and material that is as old as the Catskills (or whatever their Australian equivalent is) suddenly seems miraculously fresh. This is because Mr. Humphries had the inspired idea, 40-some years ago, of creating a comic persona that was the essence of insufferable middle-class smugness: a suburban matron whose sense of her unfailing superiority to the rest of the vulgar world was magnified to grotesque dimensions. In the succeeding decades of evolution Dame Edna (who is now, one presumes, in her mid-60's, like Mr. Humphries) has become one of the most cherished comic performers in Britain. In the process she has also grafted onto her image the insufferable smugness of stardom, the aura of someone to whom all the world is an audience, hence on a lower level than herself.
As she points out in ''The Royal Tour,'' what's happening onstage isn't so much a proper show as ''a conversation between two people, one more interesting than the other.'' She adds with her customary steely sweetness, ''I wouldn't pay to see you.''
Dame Edna is articulating the subtext of what it means to be famous in this culture. And when you see her, in clips from her television specials, talking to glitzy eminences like Cher, Zsa Zsa Gabor and George Hamilton in the film documentary that introduces ''The Royal Tour,'' she seems only marginally more surreal than her guests. Celebrity, that most coveted of statures in today's society, can make a monster out of practically anyone.
''The Royal Tour'' is accordingly a sustained exercise in self-worship, with every member of the audience an acolyte and potential recruit for dialogues and participation sequences that confirm the absolute wonderfulness of the evening's star. As usual Dame Edna shows a special affinity for those seated in the mezzanine and balcony, whom she addresses heartily with ''Hello, paupers!'' When they answer, she muses, ''Listen to their wistful cries.''
Those who know Dame Edna from her English shows and television specials will find many of the jokes and references familiar, like those to her late husband's notorious prostate condition and the special talents of her son, Kenny, who makes all her dresses and is still looking for Miss Right. Dame Edna also screeches and stomps her way through several vivacious musical numbers, accompanied by Andrew Ross on the piano and a backup team of two pretty young women, Roxane Barlow and Tamlyn Brooke Shusterman, identified as ''The Gorgeous Ednaettes.''
The Dame has also now incorporated David Letterman-style sequences in which she orders food from a local restaurant for peckish-looking theatergoers (rightly observing that ''you need energy for my show'') and makes telephone calls to friends, relations and baby sitters of other audience members. There are some newly tailored topical jokes, aimed specifically at New York audiences, with references to the likes of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Blaine Trump, the socialite whom Edna claims to have known when ''she worked behind the counter at Christie's,'' as well as wry acknowledgments of the gay contingent among those who have come to see the show.
Some of the jokes stand securely on their own; others are feeble; still others are wearyingly stale. The shtick about being politically incorrect, with its attendant references to subjects like taxi drivers with no vowels in their names, is pure Jackie Mason. But ultimately the jokes count for far less than the overwhelming presence of the narcissistic creature making them.
For Mr. Humphries is not only a loopy social satirist but also a great instinctive physical comic. This is evident in Dame Edna's wide, galumphing stride; in the manifold ways in which her elastic mouth registers contempt and horror; in her voice's sudden drop into guttural bass notes, as she describes the unspeakable smell of the pit bulls kept by her lesbian daughter.
''I have to rise above you,'' sings Dame Edna in her final musical number, in which she achieves a spectacularly staged apotheosis. ''It's my secret of survival.'' But for all her selfishness, the Dame has also somehow taken us up into the empyrean with her. Tossing tall gladiolas, her trademark, into the audience, she turns the evening into an absurdist, reality-warping rhapsody cast in garish pastels.
''C'mon, possums, wave your gladiolas,'' she crows. And as the audience obliges, it seems to have been admitted, however briefly, to that exclusive Olympian club of which Dame Edna is the president and sole member.
There may be no more potent antidote to our age of self-importance than Dame Edna Everage, the housewife and self-proclaimed megastar from Australia. A tastefully garish hybrid of Margaret Thatcher (hair and ego) and Liberace (wardrobe and ego), this fantastic comic apparition is ready to conquer Broadway after vanquishing much of the rest of the English-speaking world with her deliriously silly vaudeville act marrying (and mocking) bourgeois propriety and showbiz egotism. Although some may be impervious to her iron-butterfly charms -- some are impervious to humor, after all -- word of mouth on this crowd-pleasing confection should be strong.
Dame Edna is not, of course, a dame in any sense of the word. She sprang full-grown from the imagination of the Australian actor and artist Barry Humphries in the late 1950s, and subsequently commandeered his life. Edna extravaganzas have been fixtures on the West End for two decades, and she's no less beloved in her homeland.
Previous U.S. forays via television series have been abortive, and in truth, the dame was not at her best playing host to various film and TV personalities in her chatshow tryouts on Fox and NBC. Dame Edna is a wonderfully fragrant symbol of our celebrity-addled age, and her collaboration with even the gamest of authentic stars rather skews the satire.
In her first U.S. stage show, which played a long run in the fall in San Francisco, Dame Edna is more happily showcased, upholstered in Stephen Adnitt's glitzily ludicrous gowns and Kenneth Foy's plush set, which could comfortably accommodate either a 1964 Barbie doll or "The Lawrence Welk Show." Although she is assisted by a pianist and two cheesy dancers, Dame Edna alone is the star now, and we the observers are the supporting players.
There is a certain amount of danger involved in an audience with Dame Edna. For in an act of refreshing spiritual generosity -- so rare in these days of egotistic and insulated performers, as she doesn't fail to point out -- the star takes a benevolent interest in her fans, or "possums."
Much of this two hours and more of stage entertainment is a savagely funny give and take across the footlights, as Dame Edna queries various audience members about their lives, lifestyles, eating habits and decorating tastes.
In the guise of taking such sympathetic interest in the doings of lesser mortals, and in the hilariously authentic clucking tones of a mild-mannered matron, the Dame in fact showers the audience with insults and upbraidings, all meant "in a nurturing way," she warmly admonishes us.
Told that one Romey has spent much money furnishing her home, she assures us, "It's all right. Romey has saved a lot of money on clothes."
But Dame Edna has her own troubles to share with her shrink, Dr. Schadenfreude. There's her mysteriously still-unmarried son Kenny, now living in Chelsea after a checkered career as a window dresser and dress designer (the dame sings an homage to Gotham whose chorus runs, "I never thought that I would meet so many ... friends of Kenny"); her recalcitrant mother, now happily resting in a "maximum security twilight home"; and her daughter Valmai, of Flatbush, distressingly co-habitating with a "retired Czech tennis player" of the same sex.
Put simply, Dame Edna is hypocrisy personified -- the caring friend who couldn't care less, the self-centered celebrity who makes a career of humility and selflessness, the nice middle-class hausfrau with the instincts of a shark.
Humphries' creation makes us laugh because she is a larger-than-life reflection of universal human foibles. Her smug superiority is only an exaggeration of our own uneasy sense of class-consciousness (one factor behind her instant popularity in England). She boasts the same self-satisfactions and self-delusions we do, only hers are writ in rhinestones.
Analysis aside, she is also simply and strangely a hoot, never less than during the show's finale, when she showers the audience not with barbs but bulbs. Flinging gladioli, her signature flower, into the audience, and exhorting the possums to rise, she turns the Booth Theater into something out of Lewis Carroll, as previously sober-looking adults wave flowers to and fro and join in a silly sing-along.
The effect is a little disorienting and entirely appropriate. For with Dame Edna, Humphries slyly mocks the silliness of celebrity worship even as his creation casts the kind of spell only a megastar can.