Joan of archaeology

Pub date August 15, 2006
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

HAIRY SITUATION “Trog has a beautiful Victorian,” Matthew Martin says after giving me the address of the house where he and his castmates are rehearsing their upcoming stage production. A day later I arrive at said residence and am ushered through the front door, where cast members from Trog! — including Martin and Trog himself, Mike Finn — greet me after descending a staircase in a dramatic manner.
Joan Crawford might approve.
Not that Crawford’s approval is a viable method of judging the success of Trog!, which parodies her truly absurd final big-screen effort, a 1970 supposed horror movie that Martin brilliantly describes as “an attempt to meld Planet of the Apes and The Miracle Worker.” I first saw Trog while eating a potent batch of hash-tinged popcorn, and that psychedelic effect seems to have carried over to this theatrical version, which incorporates video projections, Finn’s circus skills, Martin’s library of movie scores, and aspects of Crawford’s life into the story of anthropologist Dr. Brockton (Crawford in the movie, Martin-as-Crawford-playing-the-scientist in the play) and the sweet troglodyte she loves and protects from a hostile, misunderstanding public.
After passing a banquet room stocked with candy bars and carbonated beverages, Martin, producer Steve Murray, and I gather around a table on the back porch to discuss Trog! “I was going to go for more of an authentic, orange-haired, Joan-in-Trog look,” says Martin. “But I thought, I’m going to seem more like Susan Hayward or the Joker than people’s iconic image of Joan.”
Martin has played Ann Miller, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, and personal fave Bette Davis as both Baby Jane (in the early-’90s hit Whatever Happened to BB Jane?) and Charlotte Hollis (in last year’s Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte), but this is his first time taking on a Crawford role. You might say now he knows how Joan of Hollywood felt. “It’s another one for the gun belt,” he says with a laugh, lighting up a cigarette and observing that Crawford’s good manners were so extreme that she would “write a thank-you note to someone’s thank-you note.”
A native San Franciscan who once embodied both Addison DeWitt and Eve Harrington in the same high school speech class performance, Martin counts Charles Pierce among his early influences. “I was mesmerized by how [Pierce] could control an audience,” he says. But he also takes pains to distinguish his acting approach and experience from drag cliché — for one thing, one of his best stage roles to date was Oscar Levant in Theatre Rhinoceros’s recent production of Schönberg; for another, he concentrates on overall character rather than gender when playing a part.
Trog! allows Martin to celebrate “unadulterated ham-ola,” which his producer Murray feels is absent from most gay theater, which is obsessed with being serious or fixated on naked boys. Though Trog!’s sense of parody extends beyond the source material, it doesn’t miss the movie’s most ludicrous moments, from Crawford’s repeated requests for a “hypo gun” down to her character’s strange (perhaps drunken) reference to the “savage breast” and off-kilter pronunciation of the g in the name Trog. “I’ve rehearsed Neil Simon plays to an empty theater and worried, ‘Is this funny at all?’” says Martin. “But if nobody laughs at this, at least we’ve been entertained by our own high jinks. A lot of this show is wah-wah burlesque, very vaudeville, with physical comedy. Mike [Finn] is a trained circus performer — how many Trogs do you know that can juggle and ride a unicycle?”
Martin knows one, it soon becomes apparent, when he, Finn, and the rest of Trog!’s cast (minus a busy Heklina) run through a performance, complete with copious examples of the “fourth-wall breakage” that Martin adores. Anytime the script refers to the press or a reporter, Martin directs his gaze at me, and in one scene, I’m dragged onstage to play the role of a doctor who incites Trog’s wrath by stroking his chest under the guise of looking for a heartbeat.
If the rehearsal is anything to go by, besides Michael Sousa’s pinched-nose performance as a snotty villain, many of Trog!’s funniest moments come from the considerable chemistry between Martin and Finn — or rather, between Crawford and beast. At the end of the interview, I ask Finn what it’s like to play the role of Trog. “It’s familiar,” he says. Then he gets straight to the point. “I’m a hairy man.” (Johnny Ray Huston)
Through Sept. 23
Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Theatre Rhinoceros
2926 16th St., SF
(415) 861-5079