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Great Dame The alter ego of Barry Humphries comes to Shea's Performing Arts Center -- and she's got a lot to lampoon with her wicked tongue Dame Edna: "She's somehow, in spite of it all, likable."

She is royalty, you see -- absolute theatrical royalty.

And, quite literally, the toast of three continents.

When, for instance, she performed recently in Palm Springs, Calif., there were actually people all through the audience gussied up in black tie to hear her shout, "Hell-oooooooo possums!!"

When her creator and alter ego, Australian comedian Barry Humphries, performs in New York and London, Mid-Atlantic theatrical intelligentsia flock to be part of it all -- playwrights, critics, actors. They know a performing phenomenon when they see one.

But then so do they in Denver and the Midwest.

And, in the cultural moment of "Brokeback Mountain," the Michael Jackson and Robert Blake acquittals, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton and the ascendance of fashion as a media subject, who could possibly resist even the faintest possibility of finding out how even some of it might look through the rhinestone-studded glasses of Dame Edna Everage (as in "average") who is celebrity narcissism's revenge on a delighted world.

At the moment, though, I am not talking to Dame Edna on the phone, I'm talking to Humphries, the vaudevillian of no small genius who created her and is about to embark on a remarkable six-day gig as Dame Edna in "Back With a Vengeance" at Shea's Performing Arts Center Tuesday through Feb. 12.

Expect, then, a show Humphries describes thusly: "It's not stand-up. It's more sort of sit-down comedy. It definitely partakes of vaudeville because there's songs and dances, and a lot of connection to the audience which is exhilarating to me."

But then, no matter who else might share the stage, "this is a one-woman play," says the 71-year-old Humphries about the hilarious falsetto horror who shares his body, "a woman who, if you analyze it, has very few advertising qualities, a woman who seems to be domineering, rather brutal, intrusive and ignorant. And yet at the end of the show, there are women on the stage -- whom Edna has invited up -- embracing her and thanking her. She's somehow, in spite of it all, likable. I wouldn't dream of trying to explain that. I accept it with gratitude."

Lest one melodramatically fear that Humphries and his Tony Award-winning character run a risk of cohabiting in that psychologically dangerous way Jonathan Winters admitted cohabiting with Maudie Frickert, the real Humphries is altogether distinct from his creation: an aesthete and actor who has married four times, had four children and invented all manner of characters, despite Dame Edna being the only one widely known, courtesy of many, many years of American talk shows.

What Dame Edna and Humphries have in common is a wicked tongue.

For instance, when asked about those American talk show proprietors who sometimes treat Dame Edna is if she were a large and fearsome Muppet, Humphries replies that his favorite is Jay Leno "because he's relaxed about it. He sits back and lets Edna talk. There are other people who have their own talk shows at night who have to be the comedian. If they're not the comedian, you're certainly not going to be.

"They get very nervous in the presence of Edna because she does have a reputation, does she not? But Jay sits back and lets her do a little bit of dominating. . . . There's rarely a comic that doesn't make me laugh. But somehow watching those late-night stand-up shows on American television where someone in a suit is rambling up and down the stage and the audience is stomping their Doc Marten shoes and laughing at, to me, not very funny jokes -- well, it's as depressing to me as the State of the Union address where everyone is leaping to their feet and applauding the most banal utterances."

Humphries has been doing Dame Edna, literally, for half a century. She was born during the Melbourne Olympics, when former law student and frustrated actor Humphries noted that housewives in overrun Melbourne were "asked to give up spare bedrooms to Lithuanian high jumpers, that sort of thing," he, in a "skinny student sketch" and now-familiar falsetto voice played a willing woman "in a thrift shop frock offering her lovely home. . . . I realized I kind of hit a vein that had previously been unexplored."

Dame Edna's conquest of America was the result of advice given to Humphries by Joan Rivers, no less, to take the act to San Francisco. "You just might get the 'village people' along," she told him. "She said, 'they could bring their mothers. You never know. You'd have a little audience.' . . . I got a little booking in a little theater off Union Square. This was seven years ago. Two weeks became four weeks, then four months. Four months became Broadway. I got a Tony Award and suddenly I found that in the persona of Edna I could communicate effortlessly with an American audience.

"Of course, they said to me, 'don't do it outside of New York, you know. Never try it in the Midwest. Well, I began my theatrical career, if you want to call it that, in Melbourne in 1955. They said THEN, 'never do it in Sydney, they won't get it.' And in Sydney, they said 'don't go to West Australia. It's too East Coast.' Likewise in London, they said, 'never go to America because that's the British comedian's graveyard. I've been very lucky. I've found in the last seven years . . . most of my work is now here in the United States."

Which even includes, a one-man show by another of his characters "a kind of drunken diplomat [named] Les Patterson" which, regrettably, is only known "to a select few. At the end of my Broadway season, I did one night of Les at a funny little theater in the garment district called The Zipper . . . I did 'Les Unzipped At the Zipper.' It was a small performance attended, surprisingly, by quite a few heavyweights like [playwrights] John Guare and Alfred Uhry, assorted journalists . . . It's scurrilous or should I say scabrous. It's very dirty. A lot of singing. Someone once described it as the dirtiest show she had ever seen in her life. This was quite a sophisticated woman.

"Here I sit [in Palm Springs], having been in Denver gasping for breath onstage -- because there's no oxygen -- and now, within a few steps of a swimming pool in this Pompeiian enclave, this rich person's playground and now I'm going up to Rochester and Buffalo in the snow."

One of the last of the truly great Vaudevillians, then, blessedly and welcomingly performing on his appointed rounds.

And, for six days, it will inhabit what was once one of the truly great Vaudeville palaces on the Northeastern tour.

There's no small justice there.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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>Preview

Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance

The beloved and legendary doyenne of unfettered ego in her six-day stand at Shea's Performing Arts Center.

Performances: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. next Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Feb. 12. Tickets from $22.50 to $50.50. www.sheas.org.

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