Fresh from Moulin Rouge, Caroline O'Connor finds her feet on stage again, writes ALISON BARCLAY

Caroline O'Connor is not naughty -- she just looks that way.  Rascally Irish genes have given her a nose that seems to be perpetually sniffing out mischief and the sort of smile that could only belong to a woman who is up to no good.
    And see what keeps happening!
    "I play vixens, I play vamps, and I'm not like that at all," protests O'Connor, holding her ground in fishnet tights and spiked high-heeled boots (a legacy of her recent vamps in Moulin Rouge and the stage show Piaf).
    "When am I going play a housewife or someone normal?"
    This is just the sort of question that teases fate, but O'Connor is safe.  The closest she will get to the suburban dream in the short term is still pretty far-flung -- Mabel Normand, the dainty wit re-evoked by the stage musical Mack and Mabel.
    Normand longed to be married and "normal".  But like O'Connor, she was an It Girl -- and that condemned her to a dazzling career romping it up in silent movies, being tied to train tracks and hurling cream pies stage-left and stage-right.
    For almost eight months in London in 1995, O'Connor re-created Normand in Mack and Mabel, a hit that earned her an Olivier nomination.  Now The Production Company has asked her to do it again in concert form, with John Dietrich as her Mack, and she believes the vibe is just right.
    "I think you do go through phases in theatre as you do with fashion," O'Connor says.
    "For a while we had Les Mis and Phantom, lots of death and war and French revolutions.  People want to go back to having a good time again and Mack and Mabel is certainly an 'up' sort of show.
    "The beauty of it is that it's based on a true story and real people.  Mack Sennett was a producer of silent movies; he produced the Keystone Cops and worked with Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin before Chaplin started his own company.  Mabel Normand was his assistant director ... sweet-looking, but a very natural comedian.  Half the time she didn't even know she was being funny."
    The two silent-era stars met when Sennett hired Normand as an extra and was captivated by her boisterous talent.  They fell in love but Sennett, a ferocious workaholic, refused to marry her.  Denied a family life, Normand also missed seeing her pioneering film work honoured; she died of tuberculosis when she was 36.
    Learning Normand's silent but deadly style had O'Connor in a constant state of peril.
    "It was hysterical.  First I'm tied to a train track" -- she trembles violently -- "then I'm in a snowstorm, then I'm being cut in half by a saw.
    "I thought, 'I was born in the wrong era!'  I love making people laugh without a sound or a word, just with a look.  It's like what Gloria Swanson said in Sunset Boulevard -- 'I can say everything I need to say with my eyes'.  I can't believe you could watch a silent movie and not know exactly what was happening."
    Jerry Herman's score gives the O'Connor cords a marvellous workout on songs such as Time Heals Everything and Wherever He Ain't.  The overture for the musical became well known in the 1980s when celebrity skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean used it for an Olympic routine, and these days O'Connor slyly slips it into her own show, Stage and Screen, a gleaming song and dance celebration she hopes Melbourne producers will want to talk to her about.
    O'Connor is proud of Stage and Screen as a chance to strut her own stuff after obliging other directors -- notably Baz Luhrmann, who for Moulin Rouge corseted her can-can dancer's waist down to 47cm, then made her eyes water with sumptuous on-set catering.
    "Anything that came into your mind for breakfast would be there on the menu," O'Connor sighs.
    "Then morning tea, then lunch, then afternoon tea, when they'd bring out all kinds of cakes and buns and baps ... it was so annoying to see everyone else munching away."
    Treats aside, O'Connor made the most of her first film role and during downtime shamelessly pestered the crew for everything they knew about production.
    "A lot of my friends said, 'You are going to go mad, Caroline, you have so much energy, how can you sit around and wait for hours on a film set?'  But I was just watching everything.  I just love movie musicals anyway, and I never thought it would happen again, so I had to get involved."