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THEATER It’s hardly news, but holiday shows can be fairly dreary treats. Given such periods of seasonal affective disorder as the theater may present, it’s a genuine surprise and pleasure to discover the wit and wile strutting the boards at SF Playhouse — tucked into a far corner of Union Square somewhere just north-by-northwest of that big Christmas tree — where the season offering is a sparkling production of David Greenspan’s She Stoops to Comedy.

Mercifully, the plot has nothing to do with yuletide or smiling through a bad case of rickets. Instead, it concerns a lesbian stage actress named Alexandra Page (male actor Liam Vincent) who decides to disguise herself as a man and try out for Orlando in a summer stock production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, in order to play opposite her estranged lover, Alison (Sally Clawson), in the part of Rosalind — another cross-dresser twice over since Shakespeare’s character is a woman disguised as a man in a part played, historically, by a boy. Playing opposite, in short, is just what Alexandra does, convincing everyone she is a man — including a besotted middle-aged gay actor named Simon Lanquish (Scott Capurro) — while spying on and ultimately seducing, in seemingly old heterosexual fashion, her charmed lover and costar.

Meanwhile, other romances abound in ways at least as complicated: Alexandra’s ambitious young director Hal (Cole Alexander Smith) and creatively frustrated assistant-and-girlfriend Eve Addaman (Carly Cioffi) balance careers and romance in precarious turn. And a highly affected actress named Jayne Summerhouse (Amy Resnick) seeks to rekindle an old flame with her seeming-opposite of the same sex: the literally down-to-earth archeologist Kay Fein (Amy Resnick) — an encounter that promises sparks, not least because it features only one actor.

But gender, identity, and blocking aren’t the only challenges put forth by Greenspan’s play. In She Stoops to Comedy, even the script is up for grabs, rewriting itself as it goes along through the caprice of characters who are liable to speak to, as much as from, their respective roles. (Kay, for instance, changes decades and job titles with relative ease.) Cunningly employing Shakespeare and other literary touchstones — in particular a 1910 play by Ferenc Molnár called The GuardsmanShe Stoops traipses over aesthetic and even philosophical ground after its carefree but astute fashion. It’s a self-consciously theatrical enterprise that gleefully eschews expectations, squirming pleasantly under the usual theatrical artifice as if looking to satisfy a really good itch.

A dazzling bit of low-key stagecraft, She Stoops is a tall order for any company. In director Mark Rucker’s staging, the action comes off as a pitch-perfect balance of wit and wonder, a loving riff on acting, connecting, and the role of the imagination in art and life. Heady and hilarious at once, it’s metatheater with a pulse, sporting plenty of fine opportunities for an exceptional cast — beginning with Liam Vincent, whose poise and subtlety in the lead are perfection — and including a couple of memorable scenes of actorly pyrotechnics exquisitely realized by Capurro and Resnick, respectively.


Through Jan. 9

Tues., 7 p.m.; Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat, 3 p.m.), $40

SF Playhouse

533 Sutter, SF

(415) 677-9596


Big bang


THEATER “Stop the world, I want to get off” — a hoary phrase of pop weltschmerz that only now strikes me as a choice bit of narcissistic prurience, thanks to Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. The phrase doesn’t actually figure in his latest work, a date-play apocalypse called boom, but when you see the play you too will encounter unexpected resonances between world-shaking existential dread and the most banal of Craigslist innuendo.
The personals posting that actually gets the ball rolling promises something more like “sex to change the course of the world.” Finally, some truth in self-advertising. For as it happens, the man who placed the ad, Jules (a delightfully earnest Nicholas Pelczar), is a young marine biologist who through diligent study of the nervous diurnal habits of tropical reef fish has deduced the end of the world by comet — in what, by the opening of the action, is about a few minutes time. Accordingly, he has lured an eager and feisty young journalism student named Jo (a terrific, wound-up and wounding Blythe Foster) to his creepily well-stocked underground lab-lair to, little does she realize, repopulate the soon-to-be-barren earth. Never mind that Jules is a big gay virgin, or that Jo turns out to detest the very thought of babies: this is the End of the World, people.
But of course rare is the hookup that matches what it promises, fate of humanity notwithstanding. Given our would-be Adam and his don’t-even-think-about-it Eve, things look increasingly dire for a race suddenly dependent on two maladapted virgins whose strange backgrounds — he, the sole survivor of a cursedly accident-prone family; she, hard-wired to faint at the first sign of danger — may or may not bode well from an evolutionary point of view. On this Darwinian date with destiny, Jules and Jo rank as colder fish than their tropical roommates, staring back at them from the aquarium center stage.
Such contrasts between the mundane and the profound make for good comedy, especially in the very sharp production at Marin Theatre Company helmed by Ryan Rilette, but they also spark insight in a work that, for all its winning humor, ponders without pretension serious themes none too arbitrary here at what does kind of look like the end of the line for life as we know it.
boom is never heavy about it, but it thoughtfully celebrates the ambiguous nature of things, or indeed the ambiguity in Nature itself. It’s a bracing tonic — whether in comedy or tragedy, you can always make my entendre a double. Nachtrieb and MTC serve up a stiff one, spiked with an even headier irony: the story we are watching of a heavily freighted blind date gone horribly wrong is itself actually a museum exhibit from the far future side of our impending doom, operated by a slowly unraveling docent (played with Chaplin-esque aplomb by an irresistible Joan Mankin) during what turns out to be her last day on the job, after many creatively frustrated work-years under heartless management.
But Nachtrieb, the San Francisco–based playwright responsible for some of the more successful and smart comedies of recent years (Hunter Gatherers; T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common), has never shied from the deeper social implications of his effortlessly hilarious send-ups of familiar human foibles — probably because his characters are always so lovingly rooted in their particular time and place, they just rise up naturally from his stories. boom, which is reportedly the most-popularly produced new play in the country this year, is no exception. Its human touch makes its posthuman dimensions somehow strangely reassuring. It’s as if, in almost diffident fashion, the play succeeds where the dogged journalism student in Jo would: in wringing a modest moral (and a final A) from the blackest hole of tragedy and the detritus of cliché — you know, “in some small, stupid way that’s sort of uplifting.”

Through Dec. 6
Wed, 7:30 p.m.; Thurs–Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 7 p.m., $31–$51
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller, Mill Valley
(415) 388-5208

Something absurd you may have heard



THEATER The Bald Soprano and A Body of Water, two very different plays, share a strange symmetry. Both feature a married couple with no recollection whatsoever of their longstanding daily relationship who gingerly grope toward mutual recognition.

Cutting Ball Theater’s slick production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano clocks in at a breezy and laugh-filled 70 minutes. Artistic director Rob Melrose’s staging is exactingly precise yet nimble enough to seem almost carefree. That dovetails nicely with Ionesco’s text — offered here in Melrose’s own fresh and astute translation — whose surreal linguistic contortions famously grew from the playwright’s attempt to learn English from the usual textbooks and their usual absurdities: "You are my husband, Mr. Smith. I am your wife, Mrs. Smith. We live in London. We had braised beef shanks for dinner. I wear my hat outside but not inside." Things like that. I don’t know about you, but people who talk this tediously are something of a perverse turn on. And so it was for Ionesco, onetime ESL hopeful, whom it’s all too easy to imagine gleefully holed up in language lab, under a sweaty pair of bulky headphones, tittering shamelessly to himself and getting a big idea.

The idea starts with a Mr. and Mrs. Smith of London (David Sinaiko and Paige Rogers). They get a visit from the Martins (Caitlyn Louchard and Donell Hill), who upon being left alone together become blank slates to one another and must painstakingly reacquaint themselves. An upstart maid (Anjali Vashi) and a boyishly enthusiastic fire captain (Derek Fischer) also make memorable contribution to the mix. The plot is about as complex and meaningful as one you might find on Sesame Street, but it’s just this lack of semantic sense that makes the play enduringly provoking and anxiously funny.

Cast and director ground the play’s giddy, unhinged quality in bright, highly articulate, physically taut comedic performances, set on designer Michael Locher’s swank orange-toned living room as if collapsed onto the glossy page of a magazine. Culminating in deftly choreographed mayhem, as all spout non sequiturs and literally bounce off the walls, Cutting Ball’s smart showmanship finds just the right visual and gestural corollaries to Ionesco’s wonderful linguistic somersaults.

A Body of Water is a 2005 work by American playwright Lee Blessing, presented by Spare Stage. A man named Moss (James Allen Brewer) and a woman named Avis (Holly Silk) confront each other cordially in bathrobes one morning in a remote lakeside house, and proceed to puzzle out who each one is and the exact nature of their relationship. Before long, a young woman named Wren (Halsey Varady) arrives. They suspect she may be their daughter, but who knows? Moss and Avis are wary of appearing completely clueless, and thus resist asking obvious questions. Soon, though, Wren takes dramatic charge of the situation, leveling a series of competing "back stories" at the couple with something between sorrowful exasperation and sadistic delight.

Funny at moments but generally darker and more sinister in tone, A Body of Water — decently but somewhat haltingly acted under direction of Stephen Drewes — starts out a little like Ionesco and quickly veers toward Harold Pinter. Indeed, Blessing’s fraught exploration of memory, of our discrete and linked identities, and of attendant power plays in close quarters are probably too reminiscent of Pinter, since they never really do him justice. Midway through, the play’s drama strains under its own premise and an increasingly tedious set of reversals, and begins to founder.

But Spare Stage’s venturing into Blessing’s Body of Water reveals starkly what makes the humor in Soprano so unnerving and successful: language is the ground beneath our sense of identity. Ionesco’s big idea was to make everyday language nonsensical enough to become transparent in both its function and its inadequacy. In both plays, with differing degrees of success, a crisis in the ability to name, and therefore recognize ourselves, points to a miraculous and precarious fact: as persons we may talk the talk, but we walk on water.


Through Dec. 12

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun, 5 p.m., $15–$30

Exit on Tayor, 277 Taylor, SF




Fri/20-Sat/21, 8 p.m.; Sun/22, 7 p.m., $18-24

Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy, SF


Monique Jenkinson



"It takes a village to make a solo," Monique Jenkinson, a.k.a. Fauxnique, quips over drinks at the Lone Palm, before finding a sequin from her blouse in the peanut jar. She would know: equal to Justin Bond’s best endeavors on the stage of Climate Theatre, and complete with a Maria Callas homage as fierce as any by onetime Climate queen Diamanda Galas, her revelatory and inspirational show Faux Real deploys Trannyshack-schooled drag, pro athlete caliber dance, and first-person dialogue to mine diamond truths about the relationship between women and gay men. It’s on a par with the 1990 film version of Sandra Bernhard’s Without You I’m Nothing.

If such references send your fagometer off the charts and you’ve missed Faux Real, for shame, child. But if they mean nothing to you, Jenkinson is must-see because of her technical excellence, ability to create beauty, and rare personable flair for drama. These qualities mark her early collaborations with Kevin Clarke in the evidently Nina-mad duo Hagen and Simone, her 2003 win as Fauxnique at the Miss Trannyshack contest, a performance as her teen idol Edie Sedgwick in a L.A. play, her artistic partnership with longtime love and "music librarian" Marc Kate on SilenceFiction’s song-video "Lipstique," and Faux Real. "I’ll write some, do some movement, see how the writing works with the movement, make some movement around the talking, and figure out the sequencing," says Jenkinson. "I kind of have to move my body to jog my mind."

Does the mind rule the body, or the body rule the mind? I dunno, but from hamstrings to heartstrings, Jenkinson’s viscerally refined explorations of that question thrill. She’s capable of "finding the breath" in a lipsync with thespian precision that would garner Lypsinka’s approval, but she’s also capable of singing "This Charming Man" with a pitch-perfect pent-up fervor. She offers a unique kind of proof that drag queenery isn’t about dick size.

The latest challenge for this "socially conscious aesthete" is Luxury Items, currently at ODC Theater. "I go back to Oscar Wilde a lot, and in his life, he had trouble living within his means," Jenkinson says, discussing its inspiration. "[A recession is] not the time for an ‘Oh my god, shoes!’ piece, and yet it is. I’ve always had to make sacrifices for a beautiful thing. You have to know about sacrifice to know true luxury."


>>GOLDIES 2009: The 21st Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery awards, honoring the Bay’s best in arts

No pain, no gain



THEATER Thrillpeddlers, the Bay Area’s Grand Guignol maestros, is having a very good year. Amid an ever-extending run of the gloriously notorious Cockettes’ musical Pearls over Shanghai — the hit revival now shimmying its way to New Year’s Day — opened its 10th anniversary pageant of Halloween-season splatter drama in the perennially spooky sideshow-cool of the company’s tricked-out Hypnodrome theater.

This year, the mix of terror and titillation known as Shocktoberfest features two one-act plays (separated by a little guillotine fetishizing and capped by TP’s signature haunted blackout). The Phantom Limb is a new work in the Grand Guignol style from the luridly clever pen of Thrillpeddlers stalwart Rob Keefe. Set in postbellum New Orleans, the simple but well-laid plot writhes around the enterprising Madame DuCharme (a genial Miss Sheldra), who has recently hung her shingle in the city’s red-light district and opened her den of sin (a churlish piano player flanked by assorted good-natured harlots in period frippery courtesy of actor–costume designer Kara Emry) to Civil War veterans Northern and Southern.

While Yankees may find the service a little on the harsh side, basically everybody gets a roll before they get rolled, since "Mama" (as Madame is affectionately known) flies but one all-inclusive flag over her business, and it’s a fat greenback. A little more than money enters the equation, however, with the arrival of a charming one-armed Yankee captain (the dexterous Eric Tyson Wertz) whose express satisfaction at Mama’s hokum "remedy" for phantom limb itch is such that he levels a proposal at her on the spot — one that points beyond the altar to something slightly more kinky and sinister. The payoff is a scream, and the finale a harmonious, unexpectedly resonant paean to perseverance under adversity.

The Torture Garden, meanwhile, marks another Thrillpeddlers first, being an English-language premiere of a 1922 Le Theatre du Grand Guignol classic: Pierre Chaine and Andre de Lorde’s Le Jardin des Supplices, based on an infamous novel by anarchist journalist and avant-gardist Octave Mirbeau, and adapted for Thrillpeddlers’ stage by actor and Theater Rhino founder Lanny Baugniet. Expanding on Pearls over Shanghai‘s yen for oriental exoticism, Torture Garden posits a decadent Chinese world where torture reaches aesthetic perfection — in the able hands of expert torturer Ti-Mao, played by Baugniet with pure malevolent finesse — and nourishes a garden of exquisite beauty. It’s a world into which a young Frenchman (a dashing William McMichael) finds himself drawn by a captivating but decidedly unbalanced beauty named Clara Watson (a sharp and lively Adeola Role).

The torture is reportedly excruciating but the cast is pure pleasure. At the helm of both plays (and in the part of Garden‘s decorous ship’s captain), artistic director Russell Blackwood is especially sharp in staging this guilty pleasure. If the pace admittedly slackens a bit midway, the story and acting compel throughout, while the company’s macabre low-rent special effects and dependable flash of flesh never fail to satisfy a certain 10-year itch.


Through Nov. 20

Thurs–Fri, 8 p.m., $25–$69

Hypnodrome Theatre, 575 10th St., SF



‘Dead’ is alive


DANCE REVIEW Wonderboy, Basil Twist’s adorably insecure puppet in Joe Goode’s 2008 work of the same name, has grown up. His name is Monroe (Daniel Duque-Estrada), and he lives in a community looking eerily like that in one of Armistead Maupin’s light-hearted Tales of the City. It even includes a wise woman named Anna (Lura Dola) who likes to grow plants. But Goode digs deeper.

Monroe is the hero of Goode and Holcombe Waller’s new musical Dead Boys. He is still scared, but now to the point where he has shut down his emotions. It’s not a good way to be, particularly if you are a would-be writer whose sense of pain, anger, and helplessness paralyzes your work as well as your life. One of Dead’s funniest monologues is Monroe’s raging using performance theory vocabulary, the lingua franca in today’s academy.

Created with and performed by students from UC Berkeley’s departments of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies and Music, the evening-length Boys is a "multidisciplinary mashup of dance, music, and theater," as Goode calls it. At 90 minutes, it takes Monroe a long time to take the risk of perhaps being hurt one more time. Nor is his motivation for the decision — the channeling of one more gay man having died unnecessarily? — all that clear.

Dead is Goode and Waller’s second collaboration, and one can only hope they continue to work together. The wistfulness and wit of their sensibilities are in synch. Waller writes good melodies, but his use of the six musicians is first rate. Often the orchestra makes its own comment on the action.

Dead‘s first act is slow in setting up the characters’ gender-fluid identities. It becomes a background-foreground issue and tends to hold back the work’s dramatic thrust. That could be better balanced. Goode, however, peoples the piece with intriguing individuals: the motor-mouth, bondage-embracing jock (Ben Abbott); the flower child/seer Roberta (Caitlin Marshall); and Monroe’s counterpart, the commitment-leery Carly (Rachel Ferensowicz). Carly’s hilarious go-away-closer duet with transsexual DJ (Megan Lowe) is a jewel of sharp choreography, split-second timing, and valiantly performed vocals. In general, the performances are good; some approach professional-level.

The choreography, mostly for the chorus, is small-scale but appropriate, since it speaks for the unseen — the dead boys. The set (Erik Flatmo), costumes (Wendy Sparks), and lighting (David K.H. Elliot) are excellent. With some work, this show could travel.


Fri/16-Sat/17, 8 p.m.; Sun/18, 2 p.m., $15

Zellerbach Playhouse

UC Berkeley, Berk

(510) 642-8827


Too clever by half


“>THEATER REVIEW With a notable streak of successful New York–bound liftoffs and landings — for everything from solo shows (Bridge & Tunnel) to unconventional musicals (Passing Strange) — it’s fair to call Berkeley Rep the regional NASA to Broadway’s firmament. It therefore seemed more savvy than surprising that the Rep took on staging Green Day’s humongous hit concept album, American Idiot, as a musical. Given the attention-grabbing concept-squared, the built-in youth market, the local angle, and the precedent (and writer-director Michael Mayer) borrowed from Spring Awakening — the faux-punk teen-angst Tony-winner of 2007 — American Idiot the musical must have been something of a no-brainer.

And sure enough, there are no brains in this show, just lots of songs and outfits and group dancing and mild thrashing and writhing around amid high-grade eye candy. It lasts 85 minutes, or an eternity, I’m not sure which came first. I wasn’t expecting much, having not cared for the hollow gestures in Spring Awakening, but I got even less. Shot out of the circus canon of commercial instinct, the stage version of Green Day’s album is as tarted up and vapid as they come. It will do the band and the Rep no harm, but anyone who actually takes their theater seriously or, yeah, even rebellion against a body-and-soul–smashing capitalist machine will be, uh, let’s say, disappointed. The gestures of rebellion here — thoroughly watered down and washed away by a flood of sentimentality, admittedly derived largely from the album itself — are worthy of any of the more slick corporate advertising campaigns. Meanwhile, a vague storyline of redemptive dissolution and lost love preens around a loser-hero and two distant and less central buddies, but it’s all faded imprints of a million things you’ve seen before.


Through Nov. 1

Check Web site for schedule, $16-$95

Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison, Berk

1-888-4-BRT-Tix, www.berkeleyrep.org

DanceWright Project and special guests


PREVIEW "Jamie Ray Wright came to dance later than most," the choreographer and artistic director of the DanceWright Project says of himself — an understatement if there ever was one. At Stanford, Wright was a pop musician who then embarked on a career in marketing. For 20 years he watched dance from the audience’s perspective but finally "could stand it no longer" and started to study ballet 24/7, three hours a day. No, he didn’t become even a second-rate Barishnikov — but he did become a choreographer whose work has been floating around the Bay Area for the last half dozen years or so, most prominently at the Black Choreographers Festival. Neither are his dancers virtuosi. But what he and they have in common is a sense for craft, a lack of pretense, and a love for ballet that enlivens every turn, every gesture and every encounter. In addition to pieces from the rep, the evening will feature a world premiere, Bella Donna, performed to the live playing by jazz guitarist Chris Tozzi. This is the DanceWright’s first self-produced evening, and it has invited some other "newcomers" to share the program. Enrico Labayen, who used to be very active in the Bay Area a decade ago, is resurrecting his Labayen Dance/SF; Kat Worthington, a dancer with Wright, is introducing her own group; and the locally little-known Dac Pac, a youth company from Santa Clara.

DANCEWRIGHT PROJECT AND SPECIAL GUESTS Fri/18–Sat/19, 8 p.m., $15–$18, Dance Mission, 3316 24th St., SF, (415) 826-4441, www.brownpapertickets.com/event/76954

Ballet without borders



REVIEW For its first appearance — with three new works — at the Jewish Community Center Sept. 3-4, the Courage Group attracted a large, appreciative audience. It’s easy to see why. Over his company’s seven years of existence, Todd Courage has developed a choreographic language that is ballet-based but thoroughly contemporary in the way it tears — sometimes humorously, sometimes sarcastically — at ballet’s edges. He loves its linearity, so he chooses from existing steps and combinations and then stirs them into a melting pot, where they become just one of the ingredients at his disposal.

Musically, he is equally selective. He patches his scores together like a quilter. You quickly learn to forget about context and go along for the ride. Some of the musical transitions may jar, but most of the time they develop something akin to an aural logic. I found myself amused by Bach and Handel playing hopscotch with each other. Chris Fletcher was the program’s excellent sound engineer.

Courage may be more of a mixmaster of dance than an innovator, but he has developed his own voice and the skills to articulate his intentions. This trio of works, at the very least, indicates that he knows where he wants to go. And he is in a hurry to get there. All three are foaming with ideas; they also tend to wander. Tighter control, not necessarily of individual sections but of the overall trajectory, is an issue.

Placing six shallow women and a deep one at the top of the program, with tall Peta Barrett as the odd one out, was a risky choice. The dancers looked awful in the way they stomped through their steps, apparently indifferent to the opening phrases of Bach’s glorious "Violin Concerto in D minor." Then the possibilty arose that Courage has perhaps seen too many students tear mindlessly through ballet class. This may have inspired him to start out with a deadpan version of every teacher’s terminal frustration.

In the second movement, when Barrett calmly unfolded her limbs, the audience could breathe a sigh of relief. Her partnering of the company’s smallest dancer, Christina Chelette — including cantilevering leg hugs — suggested an emotional relationship between equals despite physical differences. The rest of six alternated between Bach and Handel in choreography in which the dancers did just fine. They might momentarily have sunk into a ballet pose, but some of the most effective sections, such as canonic entrances of purposeful walks, were beautifully simple. Courage also recognized one of dance’s great secrets: the beauty of unisons.

dirty girl dug into one of the choreographer’s previous preoccupations — the awkwardness of pubescence. In 2006’s High Anita, it was cheerleaders. Here the cheerleaders went to a slumber party and gave the heroine a sponge bath. girl‘s humor is somewhat creepy as these young women veered between innocence and sex kittens. The choreography was game-based and influenced by teen fashion imagery. Dressed in the tiniest of skirts with flaming ruched red underwear, the dancers negotiated their way between the strictures of the Voice of God (Barrett) and the demands of their budding sexuality. The former yielded a spanking, the latter offered birthday cake frosting to lick. You can read into those images anything you want. The audience, probably remembering their own in-between years, clearly appreciated Courage’s lighthearted approach. I thought it just a tad too silly.
The quite substantial but you can’t hide introduced the evening’s lone male dancers, Nol Simonse and Brendan Barthel. First seen in languid duets, they eventually folded themselves into the women’s ensemble. Simonse, sinewy and liquid, was a joy to behold. This was Courage at his best: mirror images for the men, a violent female duet, whispering voices and moonwalks, full body contact, and a finger to a chin. can’t hide is too episodic and packs in too much material, but John Adams’ splendid "The Chairman Dances" kept them going all the way into the dark.

San Francisco Fringe Festival


PREVIEW There is literally something for everyone at this year’s 18th annual San Francisco Fringe Festival. Don’t try to argue, man — this year’s slate, which jams over 250 performances of over 40 experimental works by companies near and far into just under two weeks, is incredibly diverse. And though the old judging-a-book-by-its-cover cliché definitely applies to theater, some of the titles here are pretty irresistable: Hell, the Musical (inhabitants include a Valencia Street dyke and a Marina ditz); Spider Baby the musical (based on the 1968 movie subtitled The Maddest Story Ever Told? Yes, please!); and the Ed Gein-inspired The Texas Chainsaw Musical (sense a theme here?). For fans of history and, uh, sketch comedy, there’s the Revolutionary War-themed Ticonderoga; for morally-conflicted mountain climbers, there’s The Tao of Everest; and for anyone who thinks plays are boring, there are several on tap that challenge that belief in the most scandalously delightful ways, including Bible-stories-on-crack Pulp Scripture and the site-specific Missing: fugue #9: wear a warm coat, performed as audiences stroll through Bayview’s Quesada Gardens.

SAN FRANCISCO FRINGE FESTIVAL Sept 9–20, $10 or less. Various venues (main venue is Exit Theater, 156 Eddy, SF). (415) 673-3847, www.sffringe.org

Border bender



Heading south across the Rio Grande, their pants and shoes raised high over their heads, a 13-year-old Mexican American girl named Romy (Maria Candelaria) and her two sort-of fathers — inveterate bad boy Lupe (Sean San José) and straight-laced new stepdad Ben (Johnny Moreno) — wade into the past as their only way forward. In what you could call a return to the repressed, they find themselves in an in-between world of haunted memories and intersecting fates, devilish plans and sweet, unexpected salvation.

This is Octavio Solis territory par excellence, the playwright who for the last three decades has mapped landscapes personal, psychical, and political at once: this is Dreamlandia, or the coma realm where Lydia communes with her counterpart Ceci across space and multiple other barriers. Here, in lyrical, fiercely funny and sublimely violent El Otro — revived, and revised by Solis, as part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary season — Texas and Mexico dissolve in peyote-fueled depths of meaning and contradiction along a border never as solid or sure as anyone thinks. Even the tattoo off her dad Lupe’s back (Rhonnie Washington) — a black man in a black cowboy suit riding to the rescue with irrelevant Berlitz Spanish — is anything but two-dimensional.

But back to the setting: it’s the 1980s, it’s a Monday, it’s Reagan’s "Morning in America," which is to say it feels like the start and the end of something big. Romy, having lived with Lupe since her mother Nina (a sharp Presciliana Esparolini) left him for good, is getting the hand-off. Nina’s new love, Ben, pressed and manly in his private’s uniform, has come to pick her up and take her back to her mother. But Lupe isn’t willing to let her go that easy, insisting Ben accompany him to retrieve a present he bought her. Lupe’s behavior — erratic, coy, in no way to be trusted — worries the private everyone insists on calling "Sarge." But he sees no alternative and does his best to be mature, responsible, and agreeable as both Lupe and Romy gradually reduce him to a shattered mess. What emerges afterward is a secret family history just hinted at before, and a strange, almost surreal plot of atonement-revenge devised by Lupe in cahoots with a rancher (Richard Talavera) and his wife (Wilma Bonet).

In what Thick Description announced will be its last production in its Potrero District black box theater, artistic director Tony Kelly stages the play in stark, bare-bones fashion, the play’s moods and settings conveyed largely by the actors, along with choice lighting cues from Rick Martin and flashes of musical coloring courtesy of Vincent Montoya, with Seventy and the Tattooed Love Dogs.

The spare stage gives rein to a fluid pace in sync with the play’s consciousness-slipping style, but Kelly’s normally very sharp eye seemed less trained than usual at times. The music cues could feel cramped and sometimes engulfed a line or two, and opening night’s performances were in some places still gelling. San Jose prowled and shook the stage with a ferocious, concentrated energy and a crisp sardonic wit, but that intensity was matched only part of the time by Moreno’s proudly square and increasingly overwhelmed stepdad, or by Candelaria’s Romy, who felt initially a bit rote and could be difficult to hear. Both actors came much more to the fore in the second act, however. And as a first act closer, it’s hard to beat Rhonnie Washington’s entrance as El Charro Negro, one of Solis’ more fanciful and inspired creations and a consistent treat throughout in Washington’s hands (who is back in the saddle after having originated the role in 1996).

Well-pitched performances came too from Lawrence Radecker as Ross, an increasingly light-headed and blood-bespattered cowboy, and Michael Bellino as the border patrol cop wrestling with his backlogged conscience after he catches Mexicans sneaking the wrong way over the river — a real fuse-blower, the sight acts on him like a nonsense rhyme on one of those Star Trek robots with the smoldering ears.

Solis, enjoying an impressive string of productions of late, including last season’s excellent Bay Area premiere of Lydia at Marin Theatre Company, crafted an enduring work in El Otro for all its pop references and rough edges. At the best moments in this admittedly fitful but worthwhile production, the flow of language — mingling flights of poetic revelry, whimsical and nightmare imagery, casual and colorful vulgarity and deadpan humor — seems to hover and soar just over the stage. At the same time, it never loses sight of the ground, and in fact more than once plunges deep into the mud: playing movingly with life and death in the viscous slime and churning waters of that border-defining river.


Through Sept. 13

Thurs–Sun, 8 p.m., $15–$30

Thick House, 1695 18th St., SF


RAWdance presents the Concept Series: 5


PREVIEW RAWdance’s Concept Series is the brainchild of dancer-choreographers Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein, who needed a lab situation in which to test concept and show works in progress. They invited friends and artists who looked interesting and who had similar concerns. The result is a series of informal presentations that sparkle with fresh ideas, although the individual works are rarely finished. Watching this type of dance is so inviting, despite the tiny, near-impossible performance space. It’s long and narrow, and audiences must be prepared to move the furniture to accommodate a particular artist’s requirements. Concept 5 looks especially intriguing. In addition to Smith and Rein’s latest experiments, you’ll get the inimitable Mary Armentrout; Bob Webb/Bare Bones Butoh — you probably know him better as the ubiquitous stage manager who keeps dance shows on track; improv dancers Christine Cali and Amy Stemstetter, freshly back from the East Coast; Printz Dance Project, who have their own show Nov. 5-7; and Lily Dwyer and Scott Marlowe, LEVY Dance members who are striking out on their own. Parking is tough, so patronize Muni. But the price is right: pay what you can — and the popcorn is free.

RAWDANCE PRESENTS THE CONCEPT SERIES: 5 Sat/5–Sun/6, 8 p.m. (also Sun/6, 3 p.m.), pay what you can James Howell Studio, 66 Sanchez, SF. (415) 686-0728.

Stage four



You Can’t Get There from Here Prized Bay Area performer Anne Galjour’s latest solo play suggests you are where you live, while unearthing the real class and cultural divides underneath American feet, in this intensely researched and sharply amusing mapping of the nation 2009 courtesy of Z Space. Sept. 10-27, Theatre Artaud; www.zspace.org.

Brief Encounter American Conservatory Theater’s new season opens with a wildly successful British import, Kneehigh Theatre’s inspired production of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter, a mashup of film, theater, and song adapted by Emma Rice from Coward’s own words and music. This limited engagement coincides with the 100-year anniversary of the former Geary Theater’s legacy as a movie theater, and is something of a must-see (Nota bene: ACT is offering a limited number of $10 sweet and vertiginous second-balcony seats for this show). Sept. 11-Oct. 4, American Conservatory Theater; www.act-sf.org.

Ghosts of the River The mysterious, insubstantial and quintessentially human realm of shadows and borders come together in a uniquely poetical, politically charged evening of "Twilight Zone–like vignettes" set along the snaking Rio Grande. The world premiere of Ghosts of the River re-teams leading SF-based playwright Octavio Solis with Larry Reed’s Shadowlight Productions in a theatrical experience combining Balinese shadow theatre technique, the scale of film, and live performance accessible to both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences. Oct. 1-11, Teatro Vision; Oct. 28-Nov. 8, Brava Theater Center; www.shadowlight.org.

Dead Boys The world premiere of a new musical by writer-director-choreographer Joe Goode leads off the new main stage season at UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, where Goode is faculty by day (and otherwise artistic director of famed SF dance-theater company Joe Goode Performance Group). Collaborating with Portland-based composer-songwriter Holcombe Waller, Dead Boys is billed as "a freak folk musical about trust, gay activism, gender identity, talking to the dead, and the privileged culture’s pursuit of happiness." Oct. 9-18, Zellerbach Playhouse; http://events.berkeley.edu.

South Pacific Speaking of musicals, the big fat Rodgers and Hammerstein luau revived to critical acclaim last year — and for the first time since its 1949 premiere — comes to the Pacific Coast this fall, courtesy of SHN’s Best of Broadway series. Celebrated director and SF homeboy Bartlett Sher pilots this Tony winner for Best Musical Revival 2008, set on a frisky but fraught tropic isle during WWII with classic themes in the air, including the baldly asserted "There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame." Sept. 18-Oct. 25, Golden Gate Theatre; www.shnsf.com.

The Creature SF playwright Trevor Allen has created a monster. It began in 2006 as a staged reading and a live radio play, then a podcast. Now The Creature, a fresh take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is a full-blown walking, talking, play-thing making its world premiere in time for Halloween. Stitched together from some prime parts, including direction from Cutting Ball Theatre’s Rob Melrose and no less than venerable Bay Area actor James Carpenter in the title role, The Creature promises to be lively, to say the least. Oct. 23-Nov. 7, Thick House; www.thickhouse.org.

The Future Project: Sunday Will Come This first-time collaboration between Intersection for the Arts’ two resident companies, ESP Project and Campo Santo, explores popular and idiosyncratic conceptions of the future in an existentially rich and rollicking series of "mini-plays, songs, dances, and ‘moments’" in conversation with the not-yet. Oct. 15-Nov. 7, Intersection for the Arts; www.theintersection.org.

Boom Peter Sinn Nachtrieb offers his own conception of the future in a new play about the end of the world that, true to form for this award-winning SF playwright (Hunter Gatherers, T.I.C.), takes the form of a scathingly funny comedy in this Bay Area premiere from Marin Theatre Company and director Ryan Rilette. Nov. 12-Dec 6, Marin Theatre Company; www.marintheatre.org.

Liss Fain Dance Company


PREVIEW In music, silence has a purpose similar to that of the negative space in sculpture: it heightens your awareness of the artist’s material. So perhaps for a choreographer as musically adventurous as Liss Fain, it should be no surprise that the two new works in her latest Yerba Buena Center for the Arts concert carry the word "silence" in them. Both pieces are American premieres. At the very least, the two works should offer different perspectives on the concept of stillness. For the first part of Out of the Silence, Fain again turns to the idiosyncratic Gyorgi Ligeti, whose music she used for 2004’s Unknown Land, also on this program. She supplements the Ligeti in Silence with music by the Argentinean Osvaldo Golijov, whose cultural roots are also in Eastern Europe. The second local premiere, 2002’s Towards the Good Silence (to Bruno Schulz), is a 20-minute duet for Ruth von Mengersen and choreographer Ryszard Kalinowski, both from Poland’s Lublin Dance Theatre. (Schulz, who died in 1942, was a solitary writer and graphic artist much admired in Poland). Fain met Kalinowski this summer while her company was touring Eastern Europe and found herself impressed "by his use of narrative as a springboard for physical theater." In her own work she tends toward the abstract and the cool and the incorporation of elegant visual designs. The weekend program is completed by Fain’s almost new Resolved, a rethinking of another Steve Reich score from last year.

LISS FAIN DANCE COMPANY Thurs/27–Sat/29, 8 p.m. $35. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Novellus Theater, 700 Howard, SF. (415) 978, 2787, www.ybca.org

Theater You Can Eat


PREVIEW For me, the next-best pleasures to actually eating food are reading about food (Laura Esquival’s Like Water for Chocolate), watching movies about food (Juzo Itami’s 1985 Tampopo), and singing about food (Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop). Now I’ve found another option, and that is to watch theater about food. If this sounds as appetizing to you as it does to me, check out Theater You Can Eat. The People’s Theatre presents John Robinson’s world premiere of a play that examines how what we put in our mouths can affect our souls, minds, and the way we interact with one another. Served as a multicourse meal, the play consists of four humorous narratives that surround specific foods: coffee, salad, ceviche, and chocolate. The first, Wake Up Cup, explores how the rules of social protocol can be broken when a person is deprived of the essential morning caffeine (don’t we all know a little something about this?). In another called The Toss Up, Chef Lola finds out if food can trigger unpleasant memories when she enters her salad into a contest her ex-lover is judging. Theater You Can Eat is appropriately served up at Peña Pachamama, a Bolivian raw food restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach. For a full experience, theatergoers can either purchase a tapas or dinner ticket with the play.

THEATER YOU CAN EAT Through Sept. 6. Fri, 7 p.m.; Sun, 5:30 p.m., $19.95–$39.95. Peña Pachamama, 1630 Powell, SF. (415) 259-1623, www.thepeoplestheatre.com

Split decisions


Sexo y Violencia. It’s a fitting tag for the L.A.-born spectacle known as Lucha VaVoom. Combining the traditional Mexican art form of lucha libre with a titilutf8g burlesque show, this unique blend of entertainment has definitely found its niche audience.

The marriage of sex and violence (in varying degrees) has always found its way into the squared-circle’s storyline, whether it be Hulk Hogan’s alleged lusting after Miss Elizabeth in the 1980s, or the more suggestive eye candy that the WWF/E (World Wrestling Federation and World Wrestling Entertainment) began parading around when the "Divas Campaign" kicked off in the 1990s.

Pro wrestling has always found a way to reflect mainstream and pop culture, even if its fans are considered to be on the fringe of society. The sport’s two major peaks in late 20th century popularity are defined and clear-cut. In the 1980s, rock ‘n roll, notions of good vs. evil, and the onslaught of mass consumerism ushered in the era of Hulkamania. In the 1990s, as the lines that defined heroes became more blurry and edginess and exaggerated sexuality took hold, cable television’s Monday Night Wars and Austin 3:16 catered to the era of the intelligent fan.

Jan. 20, 1984: during the height of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State Charles Shultz designates Iran as a sponsor of international terrorism. Three days later, Hulk Hogan beats the Iron Sheik in Madison Square Garden to claim his first WWF world title. This was no coincidence. In fact it was destiny.

Vince McMahon, arguably wrestling’s most savvy promoter, had been aggressively buying out smaller independent and regional promotions, building the monster that would become the WWF/E. With his tanned Venice Beach body-builder’s physique and peroxide blond locks (and presumably with steroids coursing through his veins), Hogan was touted as the all-American hero. It totally made sense to play up current events by having the Sheik, with his curl-toed boots (somehow implying that he’s Arab or evil) drop the title to Hogan, a symbol of our patriotic righteousness.

By no means was this a new formula. But never before had pro wrestling marketed it so successfully. The battle lines were drawn, and much like in neoconservative propaganda, any Russian or Arab in wrestling was clearly the bad guy.

In the 1980s, wrestling had a facade of innocence — the fans knew whom to root for, despite darker dealings behind the scenes with the steroid scandal about to explode. But fast-forward to wrestling’s peak years in the 1990s, and things didn’t exactly read as "family entertainment" anymore.

Midway into the ’90s, the Monday Night Wars were in full swing. WCW (World Championship Wrestling), a rival promotion, had begun to give Vince McMahon a run for his money. WWE’s Raw and WCW’s Nitro were consistently cable’s two top-rated shows, and they played off each other competitively, giving way to a more adult product. Wrestling had become cool again. Storylines became intricate and good guys played bad.

During the Clinton era, Hogan’s real American image wasn’t cutting it anymore. Wrestlers jumped ship between promotions in dramatic fashion, depending on where the better deal was or simply because they’d burned a bridge. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin’s beer-drinking common man persona as the quintessential badass provided an opportunity for universal identification with someone who rails against authority, gives his boss the middle finger, and basically lives the dream by kicking ass and taking names.

Wrestling’s popularity comes in waves, and like politics, it vacillates between conservatism and unbridled, graphic mayhem. At the moment, McMahon’s WWE is experiencing a "family entertainment" renaissance — he’s trying to steer away from blood and sexual innuendo, keeping things PG. It might not have the same type of exposure as the big leagues, but Lucha VaVoom keeps wrestling’s sex and violence solidly intact. No heroes necessary.

The ring



COVER STORY Going to the DNA Lounge during the middle of the day is a strange proposition. But on a Saturday afternoon in late June, the San Francisco bar is filled with a hundred or so people, including, strangely enough, Kris Kristofferson, whose son Jody is trying out a different kind of public career. There’s a smattering of people hanging out on the balcony level, but most of us are pressed against metal guard rails that surround a ring set up in the center of the dance floor. Professional wrestling has, ahem, put a stranglehold on venue, and it’s the middle of the show.

A newcomer with a spiny bi-hawk and spiked shoulder pad named Nate Graves — a muscle-bound cross between a Mad Max 2: Road Warrior extra and the guy from Prodigy — is set to fight "the Mexican Werewolf," El Chupacabra, a local favorite who wrestles in multicolored face paint and prosthetic fangs. Even when entering the ring, both wrestlers’ movements tell a story; the newcomer is stiff and deliberate, a menacing behemoth, while the significantly smaller El Chupacabra darts around in unpredictable bursts.

The bell rings, and the two exchange some preliminary holds and throws before drubbing one another with loud, theatrical strikes. I’m sandwiched between a stylish young woman in her early 20s, noticeably buzzed, and an average looking dude in a Giants shirt. They spend most of the fight leaning over me to hassle each other. The young woman really has it out for Chupy. As the newcomer hoists our protagonist into the air, she screams for the larger man to "drop him on his fucking head."

Wrestling’s harshest critics tend to view it as a theater of violent, regressive, antisocial posturing. But a decidedly gleeful atmosphere permeates the venue. El Chupacabra wriggles out of the precarious position, and the two adversaries call for an impromptu toast in the spirit of the nameless unifying energy that takes hold during a wrestling event.


Fog City Wrestling is a year-old promotion based out of San Francisco. Relatively unknown in the grand scheme of indie wrestling — most of the larger promotions are based on the East Coast — FCW has nevertheless carved out a comfortable niche in the Bay Area, already home to several smaller federations. The promotion may be relatively new, but professional wrestling in San Francisco has a lengthy — if often ignored — history. Fans who grew up in the era of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) CEO Vince McMahon Jr.’s homogenized "sports entertainment" empire may be surprised to learn that Northern California as a whole was once home to one of the hottest wrestling promotions in the country.

Throughout the pre-WWE (then the World Wide Wrestling Federation) 1960s and 1970s, promoter Roy Shire’s Big Time Wrestling, a Bay Area extension of the once powerful National Wrestling Alliance, regularly showcased some of wrestling’s big-name stars and future legends, such as local hero Pat Patterson, Superstar Billy Graham, and Rocky Johnson, whose son Dwayne briefly dabbled in the sport of kings as The Rock. Though Shire’s mini-empire extended all the way to Sacramento, the Bay Area was the promotion’s home base. Selling out the Cow Palace on a regular basis, Big Time Wrestling exemplified a halcyon period when pro wrestling was vibrant, gritty, and regional.

Big Time Wrestling owed part of its success to the territorial wrestling industry it existed in, a system where local feds dominated the markets of their particular region. In contrast to the major performers of today, most wrestlers weren’t beholden to a specific promoter, leaving them free to travel the country. But Shire’s own ingenuity was key to his fed’s notoriety.

According to long-time wrestling photographer, columnist, and all-around avid fan Mike Lano, the promoter — a former wrestler — was regarded by his wrestling business contemporaries as a promotional genius. For Shire, personality and a dynamic, athletic wrestling style were paramount. "[He] demanded excellence from his wrestlers," Lano says. "Matches had to be excellent or he would yell and chew the guys out." This democratic booking philosophy, which favored talent and originality over marketability, is closer to the indie wrestling scene of today than to the monolithic WWE.

The Bay Area’s diversity played a major role in Shire’s booking strategy. He promoted wrestlers of color as some of Big Time Wrestling’s top stars, a savvy move that allowed the multifaceted Bay Area to see itself represented heroically in the ring. Afa Anoa’i Sr., better known to wrestling fans as Afa the Wild Samoan, followed in the footsteps of his legendary uncle, "High Chief" Peter Maivia (Rocky Johnson’s father-In-law), who commanded a massive Pacific Islander fan base. Though he was a journeyman by nature, returning to the Bay to wrestle for Shire’s promotion was always a special experience for the Wild Samoan. "Because we [had] a lot of my Samoan population there, sometime[s] [the] fans [would] get out of control and a riot [would] break out in the crowd," he remembers via e-mail. "But it was all good."

This story demonstrates a common truth in wrestling: when the drama in the ring speaks to one’s own experiences and sensibilities, the event as a whole is that much more fun and engaging.


Fog City Wrestling promoter/cofounder Dominick Jerry started out as a Humboldt County concert promoter before relocating to San Francisco with his wife in 2003. Booking FCW’s matches and storylines, he tells me, gives him the opportunity to play around with the politics of mainstream wrestling, a compelling provisional touch I suspect won’t be on WWE’s agenda any time soon.

Mainstream wrestling is often criticized for its socially conservative slant, a turn-off for many fans whose personal beliefs are less "kill the evil foreigner." But Jerry feels that in a town as singular as San Francisco, a promotion needs to cater to local sensibilities to survive. He cites, among other regional overtures, a handful of appearances by Differ’nt Strokes star Todd Bridges (no doubt drawing from his experiences battling the Gooch) as an appeal to ’80s nostalgia.

Jerry is also interested in the reinvention of character types that a small SF-based promotion would allow for, and quite possibly necessitate. "Wrestling is not a sport that’s very sensitive to race," he tells me over the phone. "But at the same time, it plays on race and it knows it. I see that I have a chance to change things and do things a little different."

He expresses pride in a recent storyline that saw a Middle Eastern wrestler named Sheik Khan Abadi become the promotion’s most popular wrestler, genie pants and all. (Abadi recently relocated to Florida. When I interviewed the East Bay-born wrestler, he fondly recalled his experience wrestling in SF: "They cheered me ’cause they thought I wrestled well and [because] I was wrestling for them. That was one of the greatest feelings ever — to be respected for what I do, and not just typecast for being Middle Eastern.")

The opening match on Fog City Wrestling’s Saturday afternoon card sees your standard square-jawed tough guy face up against longtime California indie star Angel the Hardcore Homo. On the one hand, the persona borders on minstrelsy — it’s a sort of hybrid between the implicit button-pushing of Gorgeous George and lucha libre’s rodeo clown-like "exotico" type. But the match itself tells a less straightforward story. Angel is clearly the hero in the contest, reconfiguring some of the mainstream’s predictable gay panic tropes into a slapstick offensive that plays off his opponent’s increasingly comical discomfort. Toward the end of the match, two teenage-looking guys standing across from me start an "Angel" chant.

On the surface, San Francisco doesn’t seem like the kind of community that goes in for (nonironic) professional wrestling. But scanning the crowd, I notice a sizeable number of bohemian types — an Unknown Pleasures shirt even made an appearance a few shows back. Outside the venue, would they readily admit to their fandom, or at least to their interest in wrestling? Perhaps this insecurity is on its way out.

For a true believer, self-consciousness isn’t a problem. Fog City Wrestling’s Jerry doesn’t see indie wrestling strictly as a subculture. "Everybody knows pro wrestling," he gushes. "Everybody might not admit they like pro wrestling, but everybody does. If it’s on TV, as opposed to Regis and Kelly, you’ll probably put on pro wrestling."


When I ask wrestleophile Mike Lano what the Bay Area has to offer that is missing from mainstream wrestling today, he responds with a common sentiment. "They [pro wrestling territories] were all unique. The television was unique, the talent was unique. Guys were not reading promos off a teleprompter or being told what to say by script writers." Fans today may not be getting an entirely comparable experience to the glory days — the DNA Lounge is a long way from the Cow Palace, for one thing. But the spirit of originality Lano remembers from the Shire days has carried over, bringing with it the simple pleasure of watching two colorful characters go at it on a Saturday afternoon.

The main event of Fog City Wrestling’s Saturday bill is a slice of unadulterated pro wrestling traditionalism. Dylan Drake is one of FCW’s marquee stars. He’s a dapper-looking guy with floppy brown hair of a non-threatening length. His name is an alliteration, like Clark Kent. His hirsute opponent has the biblically sinister moniker Malachai, and sports an enormous beard — wrestling shorthand for pure evil.

During a main event bout, there’s a feeling of conclusiveness to everything, like the ghost of Howard Cosell is narrating the action in the crowd’s collective mind. Each punch or hold becomes an ultimate moment that all preceding punches and holds of the show have foreshadowed. This is one of the last vestiges of Big Fight atmosphere, the Ali-and-Frazier effect, or, in keeping with the wrestling aesthetic, Rocky Balboa and Thunderlips. Sure enough, ironic detachment and snarky asides die an undistinguished death amidst the consecrated buzz.

Whether or not the majority of the audience are wrestling diehards, prodigal childhood fans, or just looking for an excuse to drink during the middle of the day, some dormant instinct takes hold as the fight commences. In true wrestling fashion, the match ends in a massive donnybrook of interference and conveniently bad refereeing, postponing the inevitable denouement for another month or two. This is pro wrestling, after all. We head home to a Sunday morning coming down.

“Good Boys and True”


PREVIEW According to St. Joseph’s, an all-boys prep school, its students are expected "to be good boys and true. To strive towards competence, courage, and compassion always." Well — easier said than done, right? In Good Boys and True, scandal erupts at the Washington, D.C. prep school when a violent sex tape is discovered circuutf8g campus grounds. When Brandon, captain of the football team, is accused of being the faceless figure in the tape, his life and the lives of those closest to him are changed forever. Taking place in 1988 (long before sex vids became commonplace), the rumors of Brandon’s crime spread like wildfire and send ripples throughout the very rich, very white, and very proper community.

Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a writer for HBO’s Big Love, the play explores the themes of wealth, privilege, and power. It follows the relationship between Brandon and his mother as she tries to reconcile with the heinous crime her son is accused of, as well as Brandon’s relationship with his best friend Justin, which is more than just platonic. What will become of the Dartmouth-bound football all-star as his life spirals out of control? What dirty secrets will be revealed about those around him? Good Boys and True makes its West Coast debut at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, where it is one in a collection of LGBT-themed plays featured during NCTC’s Pride season.

GOOD BOYS AND TRUE Aug. 14–Sept. 20. Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m., $18–$40. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness, SF. (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org

Rocked and rolled



Musical theater separates the men from the boys, and the gritty urban musical is especially tough to pull off. Hardcore violence, seedy city underbellies, bare midriffs, and a sprinkling of angel dust might make me or you want to burst into song, but it’s still pretty jarring to witness. Nonetheless, the GUM as a subgenre is well established. Many would call Rent its quintessential expression. Others might go for Urinetown, if only to take the piss out of the Rent faction. But these are the ones that help sell the form, and they can make it look misleadingly easy.

Boxcar Theatre’s new urban rock musical, Rent Boy Ave.: A "Fairy’s" Tale, has some of the genre’s virtues and many of its faults, with a title already evoking at least two of the aforementioned Broadway precedents (though how intentionally I can’t say; thematically the play’s emphasis falls more on the subtitle, with snaking references to Pinocchio et al.). You have to hand it to Boxcar; as other companies scale back and tighten belts, it steps forward and belts out scales. It’s an ambitious capstone to the company’s current season. It’s also bursting with neighborhood spirit: Rent Boy Ave. is about sleazy back-alley prostitution and drug dealing among underage hustlers in the feral alleyways of SoMa, conveniently located right outside the door.

While there are actually relatively few people to be sighted, let alone tricks turned, in the street immediately adjacent to the theater, director Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky does his best to play up any symmetry, having actors panhandle and proposition the audience as they take their seats, arrayed around chain-link and vibrant graffiti (courtesy of Lily Black and Mr. Fingers) in Don Cate’s enveloping urban jungle décor. The cheekiness simultaneously erases the distinction between theater and street and calls knowing attention to it.

But ambition and local flavor notwithstanding, the musical is rather shaky. The story begins with the arrival of fresh-meat street urchin David (a nicely bold and comically dry, if musically uneven, Bobby Bryce), exiled from his Midwestern home (yes, he’s from Kansas) for being gay. Accomplished hustler Mark (Bradly Mena), already long in the tooth at 17, takes him in hand, while insisting he’s straight despite his male clientele. David is not prepared to prostitute himself, but likes Mark, who introduces him to the Pimp (a dramatically flat but resonantly voiced Anthony Rollins-Mullens), who gets him dealing drugs in the meantime. David befriends another of the Pimp’s properties, junkie thrasher Jackie, whose opening number, "Punk Rock Slut," establishes actor Danelle Medeiros’ conviction and vocal control in the role despite some less than compelling choreography. The streets are haunted, meanwhile, by a psychopathic Dirty Old Man (a bright, enjoyably nasty Donald Currie, with some of the better lyrics) and patrolled by a foul-mouthed soup-kitchen saint, Sister Mercy (an able Michelle Ianiro).

Performances here are mixed, the staging only fitfully compelling. More crucially, book and lyrics (by artistic director Nick A. Olivero) deliver a patchy plot and characters of thin or questionable merit. There’s humor and punch in some songs, but too many lines are poetically strained to the point of hemorrhaging — especially in the generally egregious "rhyme"-busting of the Pimp: "I’ve got apples to pick /And fingers to lick /And money to kick." The rock score (by Michael Mohammed), at times effectively driving or wistful, can also be dully formulaic or ponderously proggy. Rent Boy Ave.‘s moral has an unfortunate double edge to it: among this world’s fleshy but spiritually empty transactions — "Life don’t mean a thing /Living in a prostitution ring" — it’s the soul that counts.


Through Aug. 9

Wed–Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 2 p.m., $18–$34

Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma, SF

(415) 776-1747


Whoop Click!


PREVIEW Like most superhero tales, actor-comedian James Judd’s story begins with a spider bite. He hopes the incident will give him superpowers (specifically the ability to manipulate ATM machines with his eyes), but it never comes. Instead, the nasty bite gives him an excuse to, well, sit on his butt. And it is in his treacherously hot Palm Springs home that our hero gains a lot of weight.

In his newest show, Judd tells the story of how a poisonous spider bite on his butt leads to a two-week holiday at a decrepit fat camp in Florida. Tricked by his parents, Judd accepts a birthday gift at a luxury spa ("You’ll really love it — it’s like rehab!" says "Judd’s mom) only to arrive at a weight-loss camp in the middle of a swamp in July. To make matters worse, Judd is accompanied by his four Mormon aunts, who were all made famous in his previous show 7 Sins. In his 45-minute set, the San Francisco resident takes on 10 hilarious personalities, from the doctor who is convinced Judd’s spider bite is a brain tumor to an aunt who can’t seem to part with her Bible trivia books. Laugh along at Judd’s pain as he relives how he survives the fat camp while trying to uncover the truth behind a dark family secret. Oh, and he reenacts a scene from a porno called Ass Artist 3 — intrigued yet?

WHOOP CLICK! Through Aug 22. Sat, 8 p.m., $20, Dark Room, 2263 Mission, SF; (415) 401-7987, www.darkroomsf.com

Sha Sha Higby


PREVIEW To achieve inner calm, you could do an hour of yoga, meditate on a seaside cliff, or pamper yourself at a spa retreat. But if you don’t have the time (or lack the funds), you could also attend a Sha Sha Higby performance to leave you feeling reflective, refreshed and inspired. Higby began her artistic career before she was even qualified to attend preschool. At age 3, a drawing of a single bird launched the artist into a new world of expression. Fast-forward to the present, and the internationally acclaimed performance artist insists she doesn’t have another option than to constantly create.

And boy, does this lady create. Using skills she acquired through her studies in Asia, the Marin County resident’s performances combine dance, puppetry, light, and sound to introduce a mysterious and haunting world of child-like wonders. She is perhaps best known for her elaborate structural costumes, which are handmade using old techniques and materials such as silk, gold leaf, wood, and paper. During her shows, Higby fully cocoons herself in these costumes, which she uses as evolving canvasses to animate stories of life, death, and rebirth.

For her latest show In Folds of Tea, Higby does it again. For two evenings, the Noh Space transforms into an enchanted pink forest as Higby takes the stage to work her unique brand of voodoo. See you there.

SHA SHA HIGBY Fri/24–Sat/25, 8 p.m., $10–$22. Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa, SF.

(415) 868-2409, www.shashahigby.com

They will not be silent



July 4 is Mime Troupe day in San Francisco, by tradition. Dolores Park, the place. There the venerable San Francisco company launches its annual free summer show — this year, the excellently timed and executed Too Big to Fail — surrounded by a varied throng of activists fanning out with ironing boards and literature among an audience of many hundreds basking in July rays, subversive laughter, and their own cheerful numbers.

Call it a day of independence from the usual bullshit, the jingo-jingle of national unity played for the masses from on high. This year Mime Troupe day got a city government imprimatur (making it actually "Mime Troupe Day" on official parchment somewhere) in a nod to the rabble-rousing satirical political theater troupe’s 50th year raising hell and inciting revolution. Generally speaking, when the government pats you on the back for that kind of thing, you want to check it didn’t leave behind a sticky with a bull’s eye. But the gesture seemed genuine enough. After all, the San Francisco Mime Troupe has in no small way contributed to the cultural clout the city enjoys as one-time font of the now revered (or at least hotly marketable) ’60s counterculture.

Founded in 1959 by RG Davis as a definitely not silent but highly physical instrument of radical aesthetic and political convictions, the Mime Troupe didn’t just mirror the counterculture; it was a driving force for it. And the free plays in the park — which began in 1962 and took the form of irreverent, politically charged reworkings of 16th-century commedia dell’arte scenarios and characters — were central to its aggressively popular, anti-bourgeois orientation.

From those early, gleefully spectacular free speech fights in Golden Gate Park — days when it was actually pitted in "obscenity" battles against the city government, in the form of the Parks Commission and the police — to clashes with cops and courts in Colorado and Canada over its still-provocative takes on American racism and civil rights in the guise of an old-fashioned minstrel show; to its midwifery of radical activist theaters like Teatro Campesino or anarchist rebels like the Diggers and their everything-free movement, it’s fair to say the Mime Troupe was more than a twinkling reflection of the zeitgeist.

Through the following four decades, the Mime Troupe, which became a collective in 1970, evolved and notably diversified with the times and their audiences, riding the vicissitudes of avid but also chaotic years, much of them spent touring extensively. Over what you might call three general and overlapping waves of collective leadership, it has endured. But has its mission?

"Absolutely," affirms Ed Holmes, a couple of days before the July 4 premiere. With the currently 10-member collective since 1986, Holmes is one of four members who came on in the mid- to late 1980s, and a powerful comedic performer revered for, among much else, his exquisite imitation of Dick Cheney. He fires off a definition: "To take a political analysis — radical, progressive, leftist, political analysis — make it entertaining, and take it out to the people in the parks, and give it away for free."

"The story’s the message," adds Pat Moran, a member since 2005 and the principal composer-lyricist of the Troupe since longtime member Bruce Barthol retired a few years ago. "But also the message is the going and setting up the show. The people working together, the people doing it, the fact that it’s produced every year on a slim budget with little time. That commitment is just as much a part of the show as the written piece."

Michael Gene Sullivan adds: "The audience should always leave any play, not just a Mime Troupe show, different people than they were when they entered. If they leave the same and are just entertained, the show is an abysmal failure." And how should they leave a Mime Troupe show exactly? "I want them to rush right out and overthrow capitalism," says Sullivan, the collective’s head writer since 2000, when he took the baton from longtime head writer Joan Holden. "That would be a good day."

At the same time, the challenges facing the company in 2009 are very real, most of them economic. Sullivan, with other members, points to the recent drastic yet financially necessary scaling-back of tours as a serious frustration. Bay Area living costs have also impinged on the day-to-day business of the organization, according to Ellen Callas. "People have had to take more and more outside work to fill in the gaps. It’s harder and harder to have a critical mass, even at meetings where important decisions are made," explains Callas, a member of the collective since 1986, "[But] none of us are willing to give up the dream of the Mime Troupe."

With their own building in the Mission District (purchased in the 1970s), unusual dedication, and commitments that include a teaching program for at-risk teens and workshop internships, the Mime Troupe does seem happily determined to press forward. Arthur Holden, veteran Trouper from the early 1960s until the 1990s, suggests it’s the collective structure of the Troupe itself that is key to its longevity — and no doubt part of its larger appeal too. "It’s what distinguishes the Mime Troupe from most other theaters: a sense of the collective members that they are really controlling their existence. That’s very important and it isn’t too easily found, in the theater or generally in the world."

Various Bay Area venues through Sept. 24

(415) 285-1717, www.sfmt.org

Wading in



Yeah, it’s a big one — "going boating" — for the working-class castaways in New Yorker Bob Glaudini’s 2007 Jack Goes Boating, a surprisingly poignant comedy now making a strong Bay Area debut at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre. Who would propose such a thing lightly? The word even sounds funny, at least in the mouths of the three friends assembled in the scene — longstanding couple Clyde (Gabriel Marin) and Lucy (Amanda Duarte), and Clyde’s best friend and perennial bachelor Jack (Danny Wolohan). Their tongues trip unfamiliarly on the "t" like it was a pinky finger extending suddenly from their coffee hand.

The two relationships at the center of Jack Goes Boating — one very tentatively setting forth, the other possibly foundering after several years — make for less than smooth sailing, plot-wise, but a class act all around, especially as delivered by director Joy Carlin’s excellent ensemble. And yes, the aquatic metaphors are heavy in the mix, as Jack, with his friends’ encouragement, makes it his mission to finally woo and win a love of his own. That would be Connie (Beth Wilmurt), a mortician’s assistant and, presumably, boating enthusiast whom senior colleague Lucy and Clyde have helpfully pointed in Jack’s direction.

An aging, bashful, lifelong single guy turned dedicated stoner of the reggae-saturated "positive vibes" school, Jack’s vaguely embarrassing enthusiasm for Rastafarianism smacks of the quiet desperation of the well-meaning dork, especially as visually crowned by a budding nimbus of white-guy dreads. But it also points to a crucial motive in Jack’s fledgling love life, namely some sort of anchor of decency and solace in a sea of urban chaos and confusion, a context made palpable in the comically supple Wolohan’s charmingly perplexed, almost painful determination as Jack.

It’s clear early on that some sacrifice is in order. To make everything turn out right for Jack and Connie’s little borough romance, it behooves Jack to first learn how to swim (Clyde to the rescue: when he’s not driving a limo like coworker Jack, he’s a swimming instructor). Moreover, owing to a little misunderstanding on Connie’s part, Jack needs to learn how to cook (Clyde to the rescue again, this time by suggesting Jack study with an assistant pastry chef Clyde knows to have been lately and uncomfortably acquainted with his own dear Lucy). Clyde’s attempts to do good are themselves problematic, however, having at points a competing agenda of their own (conflicting motives Marin plays to superb effect), centered on the baggage he and Lucy (a feisty and sharp-witted match in Duarte’s terrific characterization) have accumulated over many years. In fact, as Jack slowly wades into the deep end of the pool, literally and figuratively, Clyde and Lucy’s increasingly obvious dirty laundry begins to look like unintentional warning flags.

But Jack perseveres. Not yet at the oars, he’s nonetheless set a firm course already. He’s on board for this love thing. And, according to Glaudini, it’s as much a matter of self-survival as self-sacrifice. His swimming lessons with Clyde inch him ever so gently toward the deep end of the pool. But in a sense he’s already there, surrounded by the vortex of urban stress and mayhem as well as his own whirling emotions, all of it manifest in the predatory competition of other men — more often than not reduced to synecdoche in the dialogue: an aggressive erection on the subway, a stray hand on an unsuspecting breast, a philandering cannoli — and his own explosive temper. It’s the dicey but also ennobling power of love that makes Jack and Connie (whose own neurotic complexity gets its full due in Wilmurt’s shrewdly unnerving yet sympathetic characterization) able to navigate these waters finally, rather than merely treading them in a self-induced fog of pot smoke or "positive vibes."

Veteran Bay Area actor-director Carlin guides this beautifully designed production with sure comic instincts, making for an enjoyable ride all the way. But she and her cast also know the play gathers much of its momentum from deeper, darker waters just below its romantic comedy surface.


Through July 19

Wed-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 2 and 7 p.m., $28-$50

Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison, Berk.

(510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org