A series of slide projections cycling through a gamut of theater posters greets audiences taking their seats at Theatre Rhinoceros’s 30th season opener. Ranging in design from the openly trashy to the quietly tony, many of these posters offer eye-catching portions of skin and equally intriguing titles: Cocksucker: A Love Story, Deporting the Divas, Pogey Bait, Show Ho, Intimate Details, Barebacking, and Hillbillies on the Moon. It adds up to a hefty if scantily clad body of work that owes its existence to a good extent to the advent of Theatre Rhinoceros. Begun in 1977 by Alan Estes in a SoMa leather bar with a production of Doric Wilson’s The West Street Gang, the Rhino today is the longest-running LGBT theater in the country.
Thirty years like these call for a moment of reflection, and the Rhino’s lasts a brisk and enjoyable 70 minutes. Conceived and directed by John Fisher, who became artistic director in 2002, Theatre Rhinoceros: The First Thirty Years takes a jaunty look back at a raucous, at times traumatic, but overall remarkable theatrical career intimately tied to the social and political history of the queer community. While making no attempt to be exhaustive, or exhausting, Fisher’s swift, celebratory pastiche (with dramaturgy by actor and associate artistic director Matt Weimer) neatly suggests the range of artistic output and the sweep of events and personalities that have gone into defining the theater and its times.
The bulk of the show comprises a choice selection of scenes and songs from productions past (with some original compositions and arrangements by Don Seaver and snazzy choreography by Angeline Young), put on by a capable five-person ensemble, all but one veterans of previous Rhino shows. Sporadically introduced by Fisher who as MC strikes the right note at once, with a deadpan motorized entrance onto a stage decked out (by designer John Lowe) in a shimmering red glitter curtain worthy of Cher or Merv Griffin the selections progress more or less chronologically, though the cast leads off with a rendition of "Dirty Dreams of a Clean-Cut Kid," from the musical of the same name by lyricist Henry Mach and composer Paul Katz, which was a hit for the Rhino in 1990. It’s an apt piece to introduce part one of the show, "Coming Out/Living Out," the first of four sections charting the development of the theater and its audience.
Other highlights include a scene from Theresa Carilli’s Dolores Street, an early lesbian-themed play that marked the Rhino’s (at the time somewhat controversial) turn to more inclusive queer programming. It’s a still tart and funny comedy about the relationships in a young lesbian household in San Francisco, at least judging by the scene expertly reproduced by Laurie Bushman and Alice Pencavel.
The live sequences come interspersed with videotaped interviews of Rhino founders and associates, including Lanny Baugniet, P.A. Cooley, Donna Davis, and Tom Ammiano. The cast also reads excerpts from letters to the theater from subscribers and some well-known playwrights, most offering praise and thanks, others caviling at the quality of a specific production, expressing indignation over liberties taken with a script, or offering resistance to the changes in programming that opened the stage to lesbian themes and, eventually, many other queer voices. (It’s indicative of how far things have come that a letter like this last one, which pointed to once serious divisions in the larger gay community, elicited only comfortable laughter from the opening night’s audience.)
In part two, "AIDS," the ensemble re-creates highlights from the Rhino’s historic long-running revue, The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival. A collaborative venture between 20 Bay Area artists and an unprecedented, defiantly upbeat response to the terrifying onset of the AIDS crisis, the show took aim at the still largely repressed issue of safe sex through such numbers as Karl Brown and Matthew McQueen’s cheeky sizzler "Rimmin’ at the Baths" and their equally clever and forthright "Safe Livin’ in Dangerous Times" (both beautifully rendered by the full cast of Theatre Rhinoceros), as well as the terrible toll in drastically foreshortened lives (seen here from the perspective of a mother, affectingly played by Bushman, in Adele Prandini’s "Momma’s Boy"). The AIDS Show, which went on to tour the country and put the Rhino on the national map, premiered to packed houses in 1984, the year its creator and Rhino founder Estes died of the disease.
This show’s parts three and four deal with the growing diversity of voices and issues in the years of relative liberation and mainstream exposure for the LGBT population. A scene from Brad Erickson’s Sexual Irregularities (played by Weimer and Kim Larsen) broaches the conflict between homosexuality and religion, a theme increasingly explored in new work for the stage, while one from Guillermo Reyes’s Deporting the Divas (played by Larsen and Mike Vega) points to the increasing presence of minority voices, reporting on the gay experience from the perspectives of particular ethnic subcultures.
In the postmodern micropolitics of sexual identity characteristic of the new millennium (and spoofed hilariously by Weimer, Larsen, and Vega in a scene from Fisher’s Barebacking), queer theater is characterized by increasingly hybrid categories and a plethora of voices from all sectors of experience. The cast sums up the road thus far with a characteristically proud and wry glance at the possibilities ahead in the show’s final, original number, "The Rhino" (by Seaver, with lyrics by Weimer). But, to invoke an older song, anything goes.
THEATRE RHINOCEROS: THE FIRST THIRTY YEARS
Through Oct. 14
Wed.Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 and 7 p.m.; $15$35
2926 16th St., SF