Not until the second act is Dame Edna: The Royal Tour transformed from very funny drag show to brilliant conceptual comedy. First Australian writer-performer Barry Humphries wins his audience over with a barrage of ribald jokes and campy give-and-take–standard stuff at female-impersonation nightclubs. Playing housewife turned self-invented “megastar” Dame Edna Everage, Humphries then presides over an inventive, sometimes outlandish update of the classic English pantomime, a traditional Christmas entertainment in which men play elderly females, or “dames.” His version of the panto combines British music hall, Vegas insult-comic act, talk show, Fluxus-style performance, and the anarchic lunacy of Britain’s Goon Show and Monty Python ensembles. One moment Edna’s tossing off dithery double entendres and snide observations–all delivered, she simpers, in “a very loving, nurturing way”–about everything from organic gardening, the catchphrase “not a problem,” and Americans’ political correctness (from which she claims “diplomatic immunity”) to her fans’ clothes, homes, appearance, and baby-sitters. The next she’s leading viewers in a cheery sing-along about her son Ken (clearly gay as a goose, a fact that’s obvious to everyone but the myopic Edna). Soon she’s hosting two viewers in a lovely Italian dinner onstage–and complementing the cuisine with commentary on toilets for the disabled, her husband’s prostate transplant, and her own acid reflux. For a capper, the ever ambitious Edna proclaims herself queen of Illinois and gathers audience members onstage to don ridiculous costumes and pose for snapshots. (One old man was dressed as England’s queen mother the night I was there, while an overweight woman was gotten up in a red Fergie wig.) As the mauve-haired “diva from down under,” Humphries proves himself a brilliant clown with his rubber-faced, pop-eyed expressions (some straight out of Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland illustrations), his knack for free-associative improv, and his shrewd instinct for choosing audience participants hip enough to go along with the joke but square enough to be funny doing it. Kenneth Foy’s extravagant set and Stephen Adnitt’s outre costumes add to the pleasure of this hilarious spectacle. Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, 312-902-1400. Through April 8: Thursdays, 7:30 PM; Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 2 and 8 PM; Sundays, 3 PM. $34.50-$55.

–Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus.