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Lunch with Pamela Rabe: reserved and revealing

PAMELA Rabe is one of those actors, like Robyn Nevin, whose performances are so invariably intoxicating that I sign up to see her regardless of the production she’s in. Well, almost. I didn’t leap to see The Wizard of Oz but that’s just me being a chronic snob. Rabe, who is not, and who played the Wicked Witch of the West in that exceptionally popular musical, rated it a career highlight.

I can imagine her relishing the chance to be wicked. She has a palpably mischievous streak, a sharp mind, a keen wit, a coy way of arching her splendidly shaped brows and of slipping phrases such as ”f—ability factor” into conversation with such refinement you’re left wondering if you heard right.

Lunch with Pamela RabeRabe is a delectable combination of reserved and revealing, polished and provocative. Today she’s wearing a feline-sleek, tailored black pants suit with a silky shirt that plunges to such depths that one must make a mental note not to look. Sitting on a plump, leather banquette, she effortlessly commands attention. The ah, X-factor, she’s still got it, even at 52 , even though she says her looks have never defined her as an actor.

”In fact, the only thing I would consider as an advantage is that I tend to have fairly flexible looks that change. I’m not known for my face, which is a great privilege, I say.”

We are dining at St Peter’s, an intimate city restaurant named after the patron saint of fishermen and owned by chef Maurice Esposito. It’s new territory for both of us and we quickly discover it’s an excellent choice.

The Canadian-born Rabe is one of Australia’s finest and most constantly employed actors, a chameleon who has paced our stages in roles as diverse as Richard III in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The War of the Roses and a female suicide bomber in Ivana Sajko’s Woman-Bomb. But my preference is for Rabe in comical mode, such as the hysterically funny, ultra-obsessive, bourgeois mum in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. I’m not alone here – Rabe’s husband, theatre director Roger Hodgman, and her mother, Reta, love her best in comic flight. Her timing is impeccable.

Rabe also has many film and television credits to her name. She might not, as she says, be known for her face but that didn’t stop amorous European men hopelessly trailing her during the Cannes film festival in 1998 (she was starring in Samantha Lang’s The Well) and beseeching Hodgman to let her go with them.

After 32 years in the business you would think that few roles would fluster her but Rabe describes her latest acting assignment as ”the most thrilling, the most challenging and one of the most terrifying”. It requires her to play not one but two of the US’s most fascinating and eccentric characters – ”Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her daughter ”Little” Edie Beale, relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

”Big Edie” and ”Little Edie” were part of high society until their fortunes waned. The mother and daughter were all but disinherited and ended up living in squalor with a panoply of spoilt cats in their decaying mansion in New York’s East Hamptons.

This strangely endearing, oddball couple was the subject of a documentary that became a cult classic, 1975’s Grey Gardens by brothers David and Albert Maysles, who were accused by some of exploiting the two women. The documentary inspired the musical Grey Gardens, which opened on Broadway in 2006 and is being reprised in Melbourne by Jeanne Pratt’s The Production Company.

The musical is set in two eras: 1941, when the Beales are in their prime; and 1973, when they have become recluses. Rabe plays the mother in the first act and the daughter in the second – a feat, given she had a mere three weeks of rehearsals. ”It’s a dramatic musical, not a conventional musical-comedy,” says Rabe, who performed in the company’s first production, Mame, in 1999.

Ever since, Pratt has been asking Rabe back.

”Occasionally I spruik things and I can see that they aren’t her cup of tea,” Rabe chuckles. ”Or I haven’t been available but over the last few years, ever since Grey Gardens surfaced as a piece of music theatre, Roger’s been floating that and they asked me if I was interested.” (Hodgman is directing the musical.)

It took Rabe some time to decide – she wasn’t sure she could perfect the roles – but it was an opportunity too great to pass up. It was also a chance for her to perform in a medium she loves – musicals.

”I’ve done relatively few during my career. I’m an actor who sings; I’m not a musical theatre specialist but it was my love of musical theatre and music and musical films that got me involved as an actor in the first place, so I feel I’m reconnecting with a deep vein in my life.”

Our meals arrive and my snapper fillets, seared scallop, baby carrots, black rice, tendrils of snow-pea shoots and smears of horseradish sauce are arranged with Matissean flair. Rabe’s Calabrian crumbed sardines with rocket and dab of lemon aioli are relatively minimal but just as exquisite.

About a decade ago, when Rabe was in her early 40s, she would invariably be asked whether she was concerned about acting roles disappearing as she approached middle age. Nothing of the sort has happened.

Rabe has been phenomenally busy, not just acting but also directing for the Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre and programming the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2012 season, alongside Robyn Nevin and Aidan Fennessy.

She puts her longevity down to her ”usefulness” as an actor – and that she hasn’t been burdened by ”great beauty” or the aforementioned ”f—ability factor”. Rabe aspires to a rarer ”sexiness”.

”I would like to think I’m a drop-dead sexy actor because the relationship with an audience is a very intimate one but it’s not a two-dimensional relationship,” she says.

”It is emotional, it is sexual, it’s piercing a lot of membranes if you are doing your job well.”

Anyone who has seen her in action would agree that Rabe is doing her job very well indeed.

Grey Gardens, until December 4, at the Playhouse, Arts Centre.

By Gabriella Coslovich


Photos by Simon Schluter

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