The Adelaide Advertiser

15 August 1998

This article has appeared in a cut down version in:

The Herald Sun (Melbourne)
The Sydney Telegraph (Sydney)

by Sheryl-Lee Kerr

In the hero business, Xena, Warrior Princess, is one woman you don't want to annoy. Forget what she does to the baddies in gravity-defying displays of kicks and flips. Forget her"many skills" (none of which are pleasant), or even her baby blues, which she coolly lasers into her enemies with such chilling effect that fans have simply dubbed it "The Look". It's what an enraged, grief-stricken Xena does to her companion, the cheery bard Gabrielle, that has made historic TV viewing, ending with one of the strangest yet tissue-rending conflict resolutions ever.

When Xena saddles up this Saturday on Channel 10, the now hate-filled former warlord turns on her sidekick to such a vicious extent that the show came with warnings when it aired in the United States this February. "We wanted to start right from the bottom, scrape every bit of love away from them and rebuild'" explains Xena's co-executive producer Steven Sears. The brewing conflict reached its pinnacle last episode with the death of Xena's son, which she blames on Gabrielle. And the unique resolution comes when Xena sings. Well, everyone does, actually, in this double Emmy-nominated musical episode called The Bitter Suite.

It's no cheesy shindig, more a dark, larger-than-life production, requiring a 50 per cent larger budget to produce, with stunning costumes, music and choreography to match. Much of it is set in a strange, dreamy world with tarot-card-like characters taunting Gabrielle and Xena. Lucy Lawless, 30, who trained as an opera singer in her younger days in New Zealand, does her own singing as Xena. She recently stretched her vocal cords as Rizzo in the Broadway production of Grease.

But why stage a musical Xena? Co-executive producer Rob Tapert (also Lawless's husband of almost five months) says a musical "allowed us to express emotions that were best said in this way". "Xena really wants to kill Gabrielle," he adds. Texan Renee O'Connor, 27, who plays the staff-toting, flirty Gabrielle with the ever-shrinking wardrobe, reveals that her first reaction to the musical was to laugh. "Especially since I can't sing," she says. "I was really intimidated by it to begin with but it's been so much fun. We're making fun of ourselves but all of a sudden there's this element where you might relate to what the characters are going through and it might affect you in some way."

Such risks were what initially set Xena apart from the show it derived from, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. (Both shows are filmed in NZ for US companies.) While Hercules has, for the most part, stuck to it children's show format, Xena, this season especially, has made several episodes specifically targeted at older viewers.

It's a bold move for a show that could have rested on its laurels, having successfully leapt to the top of America's syndicated drama charts last season. But the show's chiefs, who have a background in horror flicks, seem to prefer the unorthodox. As if to prove that life's never dull in the Xenaverse, the show also actively maintains the intrigue of the ambiguous relationship between Gabrielle and Xena.

Although both women have had occasional male love interests, the fact that the pair have shared a hot tub, a kiss, a bed roll and repeatedly professed their love for each other hasn't been missed by lesbians, who have adopted Xena as an icon. In the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras this year, there were even 122 marching Xenas - a fact which so impressed Lawless that she (unsuccessfully) tried to get here in time to march with them. Lawless says Xena's and Gabrielle's relationship is deliberately open to interpretation. "Look, it's ambiguous," she told America's Lesbian News last November. "That way, everyone can get what they want. Really, who cares anyway?"

Obviously a great many. The show is screened in 82 nations and has more that 1200 Internet fan sites. Explains Mary Draganis, president of the Down Under Xenites (DUX) online Australian fan club, Xena's appeal is that she is a "strong woman - and strong female characters are rarely, if ever, seen on TV". "The show portrays women as strong and able to handle problems without the need for male intervention," she says. "It also has one of the greatest friendships ever portrayed on TV - it's a strong bond many people enjoy seeing." But will that friendship last? Xena's Steven Sears tells fans to have no fears: "Think of The Bitter Suite as the first step to bringing them back together. There are a few ragged threads to tie off but the will be fine," he says

Xena:Warrior Princess screens on Channel 10, 7.30pm, Saturdays.

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