Pennies from heaven

Pub date August 13, 2008
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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Growing up gay in a military family of evangelical Christians in the Reagan-era South sounds like a tight squeeze for anyone. But as Kirk Read affirms, however claustrophobic one’s environment, there’s always room for a good fantasy. Besides, Read likes tight squeezes. His active dream life (which includes having a very large man lie on top of him and expel all the air from his lungs) percolated early with the image of his young gay Christian self leaving home for school each morning past an angry throng of fellow evangelicals in protest formation, waving signs expressing God’s vehement opposition to little backpack-wearing Kirk Read, holding up the obligatory jars of fetuses, shaking fists, and lobbing Bibles. Well, Read is here to testify that dreams can come true.

The story of that, um, miraculous moment (which took place recently as Read toured his home state of Virginia with the Sex Workers’ Art Show) makes up just one part of the Bay Area writer-performer’s lively, gleefully offbeat, and largely autobiographical concatenation of multimedia performance pieces, This Is the Thing, now being reprised at Shotwell Studios after its sold-out Queer Arts Festival debut at the Garage in June. But it comes, along with a raucous striptease, as the apt climax of an evening driven by a kind of fervor and sensibility clearly (if inadvertently) inspired by Read’s "hardcore" Southern Christian upbringing (recounted in detail in his 2001 memoir, How I Learned to Snap [Hill Street Press]).

Thus the evening begins with a prayer. Stepping onto the stage looking like a young Osmond-esque televangelist in a white polyester suit and gold sequin tee, Read (ably accompanied through many a mood by composer and multi-instrumentalist Jeffrey Alphonsus Mooney, and backed by the smooth, evocative video collage work of Liz Singer) leads those assembled in a celebration of all those things disappearing — the cassette mixtape, the bottle rocket, the sonnet — before segueing into a paean to the penny and a loose, carefree set of associations that promptly lead to Abe Lincoln as well-hung gay icon. Pennies, those "shiny whores," are a sort of leitmotif here, though I can’t exactly say I understood why. Still, in terms of theme and execution, Read’s deceptively laid-back intensity, wit, and bold and personable self-exposure tend to make up for the evening’s slighter or more muddled aspects.

At its best moments This Is the Thing melds carefully honed physical and thematic juxtapositions with Read’s loose and natural but wholly committed performance style. The effects are often simultaneously hilarious, haunting, and gently moving. In a segment titled "The Conductor," Read recounts his first encounter with his very favorite sex client, a 450-pound man with a penchant for the classics, acting out the surprisingly romantic business affair with the aid of a large Winnie the Pooh–headed bear of a mannequin — a luxurious pileup of stuffed animal pelts constructed by Doug Hansen. In another pas de deux, a quietly strange and graceful piece called "Computer Face," Read is paired with a man-size figure set on wheels, wrapped in white bandages with clumps of wires for hands, and a glowing, hollowed-out Apple computer monitor for a head. As a looped recording plays a speech by Harvey Milk, Read pulls a series of objects from the figure’s head and dances with it in tight circles across the stage. In "The Nu Handbell Choir," the show reaches a kind of peak of starkness and delicacy as Read, calmly micturating into a set of crystal goblets, describes his furtive childhood adoration for his father — a veteran of three wars — and his Army brass buddies as they assembled in his parents’ living room to drink, talk, and console one another.

Other vignettes are less complex but still compelling in their energy and frank humor. "Hotel Hooker Haiku" is a sassy phenomenology of an Atlanta prostitute’s working world, set to banjo accompaniment and jovial footage of some dingy, dreary motel grounds. And the more traditionally outrageous if still amusing "Missing Mike Brady" posits Florence Henderson as a clothesline post airing her sex life on a well-worn marriage sheet. The Bradys may seem a little far afield here, but then, like the best of preachers, Read is nothing if not ecumenical.


Thurs/14–Sat/16, 8 p.m. (also Sat, 10 p.m.), $12–$20

Shotwell Studios

3252 Shotwell, SF