David Kurlander

A master of observation: chatting with author Sean Wilsey


“We used to call this Café High,” author Sean Wilsey says of Café International, our meeting spot, before letting out a hearty chortle. By “we” he means his late-80s classmates at the Urban School, the private prep school 10 blocks or so from the Haight and Fillmore coffee shop. By “high” I assume he’s alluding to marijuana in some form or another, but I’m too intrigued by Wilsey’s instant openness and nostalgia to probe. Despite four other high schools (he never graduated), myriad other cities (he doesn’t come back to San Francisco very often anymore), and 25 or so intervening years (he’s pushing 45), Wilsey still grasps the vibe of his native hood with the exactitude of a lifelong resident. 

“A lot of places used to look like this …Café High only stands out now because it’s a relic.” The joint, which plays reggae tunes, has scuffed floors, and whose waiters delivered a gorgeous mango smoothie to Wilsey, is no longer the stereotypical SF hangout spot. Instead, the boutique and artisanal bars and coffee houses of the tech boom are the preferred haunts for most interviews and meetings of the literati. As he discussed his own evolution on gentrification, his wide and incisive eyes, usually full of exuberant twinkle, squinted in judgment. “When it first started happening, I said, ‘Shit, yeah!’” But then it loses its edge of interestingness,” Wilsey says. “The Haight used to feel totally wild and nuts. Now I wouldn’t think twice about bringing my grandmother here at any hour of the day.”

Wilsey’s ability to instantly contextualize San Francisco’s commercial shifts despite his absence is testament to the depth of his analytical mind. The writer has managed to become a magazine mainstay, wildly successful memoirist, and, most recently, author of the McSweeney’s essay collection More Curious, because of this uncanny observational ability. He’s had a prolific and varied career and is only picking up steam. Yet, like the stories of many artists, Wilsey’s journey is one built more on compulsion than pure bliss, calling than serendipity. 

Given his background as the son of San Francisco socialites Al Wilsey and Pat Montandan, Wilsey is astonishingly self-made. “I have endured a certain amount of ridiculous preconception, especially in this town, out of the fact that I have a family that casts a shadow here,” he explains. “But I don’t feel like I have anything to do with it.” Despite his feelings of distance from his family’s legacy, Wilsey appears anything but bitter — he talks of his parents with a smile. Instead, he simply seems to have fought to find his own road.

After his tumultuous and often delinquent high school journey, he began honing his writing and eventually moved to New York City with the express desire to get a job at the New Yorker. “I said, ‘I’m not leaving until it happens.’ There was a lot of determination,” he says. Wilsey sent his portfolio to the New School, got in, and happened to find a professor who worked at the New Yorker. Wilsey had been at Newsweek organizing responses to letters, but eventually, after a year of calling the head of the messenger room, finagled a job as an in-house deliveryman at his dream publication.

“It had to be one of the favorite jobs that I ever had, because they would literally be like, ‘run this down to Norman Mailer’.” Despite the high-profile deliveries, Wilsey’s life was scrappily exhilarating as opposed to glamorous. He lived on a ferryboat that had docked at Pier 25, did restoration work in exchange for habitation, and got by on the $18,000 messenger salary.

I couldn’t help but think that the author’s early years in the industry were ripe for some sort of further artistic exploration, so it wasn’t surprising when Wilsey revealed that he is working on a new memoir that will incorporate his New York years. Our conversation began to transition from the biographical to the philosophical as we discussed his initial trepidation at the endeavor. “Until recently I’ve felt kind of intimidated about writing about New York, most notably because my editor — I love her, but she’s a badass — said, ‘Oh, you think you can write about New York?’”

While Wilsey delivered the quote with a hilariously sassy tone, he was clearly serious about the pressures of self-criticality and perfectionism in the writing world. He told me a bit about the plight of legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, whom he got to meet while at the magazine and talked extensively about in the introduction to More Curious. At the height of his powers in 1964, Mitchell stopped writing and, until his death in 1996, still came to the New Yorker almost every day without ever publishing anything significant.

Relative mystery still exists about what exactly happened in Mitchell’s mind that led to his silence. Wilsey, however, has gleaned ideas from the memoirs of one of the writer’s secretaries. “They had these flirtatious lunch dates — she was a very good-looking woman — and eventually Mitchell would tell her about what he was working on and how hard it was.” The empathy that Wilsey felt for Mitchell was palpable in his voice as he recounted his literary idol’s struggles. “He tried to bring every piece he wrote to the next level and it became harder and harder for him to do it …a bit of it has come out and its not as amazing … there’s a kind of mania in it.”   

Wilsey’s candor is so without pretense that I found it difficult to maintain a critical eye while we discussed. As he told the Mitchell story, I remembered to take in his appearance — a blue messenger cap (which appeared so poetic given his “in” at the New Yorker), a button-down, jeans. His dress and light, baritone voice both evoked a lasting youth — while he spoke with authority and maturity, his vigor and presence quelled all supposes that he is approaching some sort of Mitchell moment. 

Wilsey battles the pitfalls of self-doubt through several writing strategies. While he was immensely appreciative of my review of More Curious, he called me out for suggesting that his immaculate fact checking was “of the Wikipedia age.” “I over-research to an incredible degree, but I actually try to avoid web research altogether.” The personalized investigative process, much of which he chronicles within his pieces, seemingly keeps Wilsey focused. The compressed timing of magazine writing also appears to help the writer keep energized in his detective work and retain perspective about the inevitable imperfection of his articles. “When you have an editor and a deadline it’s harder to get caught up in the potential craziness of working in a vacuum,” he says.

Wilsey also generates genuine interest in all of the subjects that he takes on and manages to imbue them with a philosophical depth that usually isn’t instantly obvious. While we discussed “Some of Them Can Read,” his frightening treatise on New York’s rat population, Wilsey recounted a surreal piece of information that, while not making it into the essay, buoyed its thesis. “Some explorers in South America entered a crater that no one had ever entered before. They found these huge dog-like rats, but they were like, pure love, extremely friendly, and vegetarian.” Using the rats as the uncorrupted variable against their more vicious and conniving New York equivalents, Wilsey came to a startlingly deep conclusion about the beasts. “Rats are reflections of us. They are our alter egos.”

While Wilsey can’t help but uncover facts and endlessly theorize about rats, NASA, World Cup soccer, and the other facets of contemporary society that he explores, he doesn’t necessarily want to. “You have to be called to do this thing. This is what I do. Otherwise it’s very lonely and frustrating to have a literary view of the world and not be able to set it down and stop analyzing.” The moxy that Wilsey showed in climbing the literary ladder and the attention he pays his focuses is not as much a desire so much as a necessity.

After discussing his powerful impulse to write for several minutes, Wilsey grabbed the copy of More Curious that I’d brought with me and flipped to its centerpiece, “Travels With Death.”

“I never wanted to write [this as] the main essay, but this dude we met went on this insane monologue.” The dude in question, an eccentric San Antonian interested in the architectural work of Wilsey’s traveling companion, the architect Michael Meredith, presented the duo with a multi-hour tirade about Texas history. Wilsey read his response to the surreal scene out loud: “It put me on alert. I started expecting I’d have to write about all of this, and there’s no surer impediment to a good time than knowing you have to write about it.”

Marfa, Texas, an artist enclave of around 2,000 people where Wilsey lives much of the time, offers the writer shelter from the emotional burden of his constant analysis. “Marfa, though overwhelming in its natural grandeur, allows me to step outside of my mind and just chill, and that’s almost a subversive act for me.” While Wilsey’s first and last essays in his collection focus on Marfa, he doesn’t feel the same internal expectation to chronicle its happenings.

That hasn’t stopped him from receiving a fair amount of derision in the local press. He explains a particularly damning piece: “It basically said, ‘Why does he get to write the book that is going to in some way define or advance the conversation about what this place gets to be?’” Thus, even when Wilsey manages to turn off his internal self-judgment in Marfa, his neighbors sometimes manage to pick up the slack. Despite the stress, however, Wilsey is still in love with the locale. “That’s not the Marfa that I know. Marfa can be edgy, but usually very kind.”

As we left Café High and walked up Haight Street to his reading at the Booksmith, I couldn’t help but think that Wilsey is like his home — full of sharp and often biting insight, but immensely generous and restrained, lacking almost entirely in cruelty. As he regaled me with stories of ’80s quasi-brothels on Haight that were frequented by Urban students and sighed at the sight of another steel-tinged bar with stylist mixologists, I could tell that the mania of Wilsey’s life and mind were all worth it — he’s doing what he has to do.  

Check out David Kurlander’s review of Sean Wilsey’s More Curious here.

American landscapes: a review of SF native Sean Wilsey’s essay collection, ‘More Curious’


Midway through the introduction to More Curious (McSweeney’s Books, 342 pp., $22), his recently-published collection of essays from the last 15 years, Sean Wilsey (who appears at the Booksmith Thu/21) reveals his quest to combine the styles of Thomas Pynchon and New Yorker legend Joseph Mitchell — paranoia and precision, respectively.

The introduction itself is a joyfully meta attempt at this very task. The 20-odd pages of often non-sequitorial rumination about the aforementioned authors, the triviality of the 1990s, and the first Obama election can be mistaken as “formless while still astonishingly informative” or “so intricately constructed and fact-filled that the form is too complex to be instantly identified.” The happy reality of all of Wilsey’s essays is somewhere between these two perceptions.

The author, a San Francisco native who now lives in Texas, never entirely abandons the expository air of classic feature writing, but he injects his work with enough personal and manic energy to identify it as decidedly 21st century. While Wilsey recognizes (very humorously) the bombast of comparing oneself to two of the greatest writers of the modern era, his writing does occupy the rarefied territory between Mitchell’s organization and Pynchon’s stream-of-consciousness and is the perfect tone for the frenetic and absurd subjects that make up his collection. 

The primary symptom of Wilsey’s ability to be both informative and emotionally kinetic is how seamlessly he intertwines personal narrative with reference. Never in the collection did I feel jolted when Wilsey inserted a block quote of an email correspondence with a NASA engineer or a quote from Beowulf. To the contrary, Wilsey’s deft research and allusion bolsters his personality — his rabid search for answers would feel anti-climactic without the primary source of his findings.

In this layered memoir about a surreal, Travels With Charley-inspired road trip across the US, WIlsey invokes the social science of George Trow’s “Within the Context of No Context” to discuss America’s obsession with celebrity culture. This graceful quote (which includes the biting “Television is dangerous because it operates according to an attention span that is childish but cold”) is the proverbial Mitchell, a disciplined and timely revelation of a concept that makes a point about the collective. But after Wilsey realizes that the backups he causes in his impossibly slow 1960 Chevy Apache pickup have halted the transport of military and retail goods, he brings the Trow allusion into the paranoid — he is the free spirit holding back the movement of inanimate celebrity, the Pynchonian radical wrench in the machine.

In the majority of Wilsey’s 15 essays he creates a similar dichotomy between colorful reporting and intense feeling. In “Some of Them Can Read,” Wilsey throws together dozens of facts about New York’s rat population (with the titular affirmation only half as disturbing as the most grotesque truisms about the beasts) while waxing philosophical about the special place of paranoia that rats inhabit for new fathers. In his ode to skateboarding, “Using So Little,” Wilsey gives a detailed cultural history of the art (or sport, though he rejects this branding) while discussing the personal escape it allowed for him in the topsy-turvy world of the 1980s San Francisco urban haute bourgeoisie. And in “The Objects of My Obsession,” he breaks down Craigslist culture while revealing his increasingly pagan and obsessive relationship with the site and the epic journeys its resultant acquisitions afford. 

It’s often difficult to tell how Wilsey avoids a simple deductive pattern of conceptual to personal — this tendency plagues an overwhelming majority of confessional and “new” (if we’re in 1968) journalists, though is perfectly reasonable given the desire to adequately prove to the reader that the article has educational value before the author unleashes his idiosyncrasies onto the page. The constant back-and-forth between personal experience and cultural analysis keeps the writing from becoming predictable or repetitive. I got to know Wilsey, assuredly, but he was always capable of surprising me.

Near the end of “The World I Want to Live In,” a dialectic on the quirkiness of World Cup soccer that, unlike almost anything else in the book, feels vaguely dated (it was originally published in 2006) after the recent explosion in domestic popularity of the event, Wilsey digresses into a several-page breakdown of the most memorable aspects of the 1970 World Cup. The shift is so within the narrative but also just so damn trivial — that Wilsey includes it in full (and it is one surprisingly complete digression of many, I assure you) helps him carve out a space beyond Mitchell and Pynchon, where the voracious Wikipedians among us are sated without even having to ask. 

Wilsey’s tendency to elevate his Mitchell-influenced addenda to levels of specificity only possible in the Internet age allows his work, when taken in full, to feel generation-defining. Wilsey, now almost 45, has grown through the advent of the second millennium from being identified as the son of controversial socialites to an ubiquitous magazine contributor to a recognized literary voice. The paranoias that have seemingly driven his modern humanist journey are just as intense as those of any other time — fatherhood, vocation, separation from parents, guilt are pretty timeless fuels.

In fact, in the post-9/11 world they may even be elevated — Wilsey lived near the World Trade Center and constantly invokes his personal fear of the attacks throughout the collection, even including an essay about his attempts to help grieving relatives in the immediate aftermath. Access to anecdotes, minutiae, and statistics, however, is an emotional comfort and storytelling tactic that is far more complete now than it was in the heydays of Wilsey’s literary idols. It is this timeliness of style, alongside self-awareness and acknowledgement of the past, that makes Wilsey’s collection feel unified and a welcome chronicle of our age.  

Check back for an interview with author Sean Wilsey, coming soon!

Sean Wilsey

Thu/21, 7:30pm, free


1644 Haight, SF


Carletta Sue Kay on strip clubs, literature, and dumpster-diving after art exhibits


Not long after I sat down with Randy Walker, the male, non-performing ego of one of San Francisco’s most undefinable musical acts, vocal powerhouse Carletta Sue Kay (who performs at The Chapel this Fri/25), we talked a bit about college. Walker asked me the prerequisite questions about the social scene and my major, perking up at the sound of a humanities-centric discipline. I asked if he’d done the whole college thing. Walker chuckled, a glint in his eye, and said he had. “I went to Redlands College but didn’t graduate. Started out in Theater Arts, ended up switching over to English…but what are you really going to do with an English degree?”

As the conversation continued, however, Walker’s dismissal of the formal literary arts became increasingly incongruous with his mastery of language, the modern canon (from David Foster Wallace to Elizabeth McCracken), and allusion in his performances. The singer, whose music is a deft blend of Joplin-esque blues and far more cerebral and melodic existential examination, is anything but simplistic. As Walker’s mind opened up, we twisted and turned through a deliciously intellectual and sordid discourse about strip clubs, eccentric cousins, and the Swiss conceptual artist Thomas Hirschhorn. By the time we left the coffee shop, me with Carletta Sue Kay’s debut album Incongruent in hand, it was clear that Walker and his alter ego were far more complex (and hilarious) than the average wigged, pastichy, four octave-ranged singer-songwriter.

Carletta is a real person, says Walker. So was Walker’s last singing character, a plastic surgery-obsessed Belgian who Walker often presented with a variety of gauze pads and other bandages preferred by convalescents of cosmetic procedures. Both Carletta and the Belgian are Walker’s cousins (his last project was called Mon Cousin Belge). “While I was doing Mon Cousin Belge, I was writing songs at home that I thought needed to be sung by a girl. I thought, ‘I’m going to find some great female singers to record this stuff.’ But then I thought, ‘Hold on…’”

Carletta Sue Kay, Walker’s eccentric, ex-criminal cousin, was an ideal persona that he could put on to present his new works. “Carletta is a very troubled girl. She was involved with a guy and became very obsessed with him. She found out that this guy was sleeping with another girl and constructed a pipe bomb with the intent of killing him in his apartment.” Walker, clearly embracing the macabre underpinnings of the story, smiled and spoke with a bounce in his tone as he recounted her his cousin’s homicidal urges. “Well, they busted her and she went to prison. So the band became Carletta Sue Kay.” The more sorrowful of the band’s songs, which often focus on lost love and sadness, evoke the woeful tale. Now a free woman, the real Carletta has never agreed to see a performance by the band. “She’s completely chill with it. She’s a funny girl.”

The band’s inaugural performance is just as legendary as its naming. Mon Cousin Belge needed an opening act for a headlining gig at Bottom of the Hill, so Walker decided to unveil his new group. He crafted a Grecian arch, covered it in autumn leaves, sprayed it with glitter, and enlisted his friend, artist Greg Gardner, to create a cartoon rendering of his burgeoning alter ego on a piece of fabric curtain that hung down from the arch. “He drew a big fat naked girl. Her nipples were painted with pink glitter. They do the intro music (strum, strum) and I pull the curtain up to reveal myself standing there. The birth of Carletta!”

Throughout his contextualization of Carletta, Walker dropped hilarious one-liners and unexpected anecdotes about culture. I wasn’t surprised to hear The Magnetic Fields’ frontman Stephin Merritt’s name come up a few times, as Carletta Sue Kay has provided back-up vocals for several songs by the group. More surprising, however, was Walker’s invocation of Stephen Sondheim as a primary influence. And when a shirtless, seemingly inebriated man with an unruly mullet danced by in the front window of the café, Walker looked up and, without missing a beat, said, in questionably PC fashion, “It’s a character out of a James Fenimore Cooper book!”

While Walker sprinkled our conversation with bands, authors, and artists, his charisma was not so much in his prolific knowledge of and interaction with the art world, but rather how he used his experiences as a means of telling remarkably funny and compelling stories. In one such story, Walker told of his love for Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation “Utopia, Utopia = One World, One War, One Army, One Dress.”

The exhibit, which showed at the CCA Wattis Instiute of Art a few years back, included juxtapositions of camouflage wear in fashion and the military alongside globes with small camo-tinged tumors growing on them. “After the exhibition ended, they were tossing 80 percent of the work into the trash. So we’re like…dumpster dive!” After snatching nine of the globes used in the exhibition, Walker began to sell them off. “It’s ephemeral,” Walker retorted when I suggested that he was dealing in the conceptual art black market.

Walker informs his new songs, which he’s collecting for an upcoming record called Monsters (much of which he will sing on Friday), with a similarly diverse range of artistic interests as his stories. “It’s influenced by Hammer classic horror films — Creature from the Black Lagoon — anywhere from comical to kitschy, but always with a dark theme. But then it’s going to mixed with a lot of genuine sadness.” Stylistically, Carletta Sue Kay continues to move towards more piano-heavy, lyrical wandering in comparison to the high-octane blues of its initial incarnation. Walker is seemingly aiming, both in his tales and his music, for the intersection between poking fun at cultural elements and emotionally engaging with their deeper messages.

How we ended up talking about strip clubs I may never know (and I have a complete recording of the conversation). Seemingly, it branched out of a conversation about Walker’s boyhood home, Fontana, Calif., which he cited for its high methamphetamine rates and large Pentacostal population. Before we knew it, however, we were talking about a wide range of California strip clubs, from the sketchier SoCal ones that he saw as a younger man and more upscale ones like Mitchell Brothers. Walker, who is gay and has been with his partner for more than 20 years, goes with his straight friends seemingly as a means of understanding the culture and to have fun. His stories, however, soon entered surreal realms of aggressive strippers, extreme money-spending binges by his friends, and abstract deconstruction of the vibes inside various clubs.

Whatever the reason for the digression, it perfectly captured Walker’s unabashedly entertaining form of communication — simultaneously intellectual, pulpy, and laugh-out-loud funny. For a man with such powerful personae, Randy Walker is wholly himself. 


With The Dead Ships and Titan Ups

The Chapel

777 Valencia, SF


Frameline leftovers: Audience Award-winning Barney Frank doc ‘Compared to What’


Pride’s Pink Saturday offered a dynamic final morning of the massive 38th annual Frameline, the world’s largest film festival devoted to LGBT films. Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank, a doc that gives an intimate look into the private and political life of the recently retired iconic Congressman, screened to a packed and cheering crowd at the Castro Theater.

The film (trailer here) eschews direct chronology for a thematic look at Frank’s development, from his days as a Harvard political wunderkind to his immensely powerful tenure as a US congressman, during which time he headed the House Financial Services Committee and crafted the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The film, while a love letter to the idiosyncratic and clever Frank, does not shy away from his his tortured time as a closeted public figure and his late-80s prostitution scandal.

Co-directors Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler received thunderous applause before Frank and husband Jim Ready, who also features prominently in the film, took the stage and fielded questions from the audience. Ready told a hilarious story about how 60 Minutes quasi-outed him to his ex-girlfriend while Frank delivered a rousing declaration of support for equal workplace rights. 

Compared to What picked up Frameline’s Audience Award for Best Documentary. DVDs can be pre-ordered here.

Grimm but not grim: SF Playhouse’s winning fairy tale ‘Into the Woods’


Given all traditional parameters of critical experience, SF Playhouse’s production of Into the Woods (now playing through Sept 6) should be at least somewhat irksome. The vocal talent can be inconsistent, the accents are ambiguous, the set looks busy, and the musical is high-strung enough that it can be insufferable without expert work on all fronts. Shockingly, despite the surface-level issues, the Playhouse production is an unqualified technical success and a complete joy to take in.

The watchability may result from the impeccable staging and verbal interplay between the actors, or the reliable and often gorgeous small orchestra that accompanies the singing. Or perhaps the musical’s hilarity comes from the Robert Goulet-esque swagger of the dual princes and the coy and satirically sexualized awakening of Little Red Ridinghood. Or maybe the show is so good because, in addition to his expert instrumental direction, music director Dave Dobrusky helps his cast find their vocal strengths — the entire ensemble navigates the passaggio-shredding score with astonishing tact. All these positives combine to make Into the Woods an atmospheric journey more than worth taking.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986 work has aged majestically. The book avoids any hint of contemporary cultural referentiality, giving the work a timelessness and broad humor that seems just as applicable in the millennial age as it was 30 years ago. Gender expectation, the limitations of heroics, and the predictability of children’s stories are all over the 2014 liberal zeitgeist and all play big thematic roles in the production.

Sondheim and Lapine manage to boil down these issues to atomic levels — Ridinghood’s titillation at the lascivious Wolf’s advances, Jack’s clueless but powerful desire to traverse the world of the giants, and the witch’s overprotectiveness over Rapunzel all explore basic yearnings and are remarkably Freudian in scope. It’s no wonder that Disney is releasing a blockbuster version of the musical this December.

The plot is a flimsy excuse to combine the stories of Cinderella (Monique Hafen), Rapunzel (Noelani Neal), Jack and the Beanstock (Tim Homsley), and Little Red Ridinghood (Corinne Proctor) into a single entity. A Baker (Tim Pinto) and his Wife (El Beh) are victims of an infertility curse at the hands of a vengeful witch (Safiya Fredericks) and the very convenient antidote is to steal items from each of the other Brothers Grimm icons.

Despite the storyline’s more contrived elements, Sondheim and Lapine, in typically sophisticated fashion, fill the show with fast-talking, convoluted numbers and twists that require actors capable of sudden and realistic emotional shits as well as deft pronunciation. Not one of the lines in the show was garbled or dropped, nor did any of the sudden shifts cause interruptions in the emotional momentum of the piece. For a Sondheim piece, this is an impressive achievement — I hate to think how many run-throughs some of the more word-heavy interchanges took. Whether to credit this more to Dobrusky or director (and Playhouse co-founder) Susi Damilano is unclear, but they both deserve extensive kudos for the verbal and emotional clarity of the play.

Chiefly responsible for this are Hafen’s Cinderella and the Pinto and Beh’s Baker couple, who have the least flashy parts in the production and need to act as its emotional center. Hafen is the stand-out, with a beautiful coloratura voice that floats up effortlessly to the higher notes in her melancholic “Cinderella at the Grave” and the conflicted “On the Steps of the Palace.” She moves with authenticity and humbleness — she never eats scenery or overdoes anything, which allows the other actors to be more flamboyant. Her evasion of the Baker’s Wife’s questions about her courtship with the Prince is a revelatory moment.

Pinto’s Baker is equally full of humanity. He has to deal with the most opposition and tragedy throughout the narrative and retain the full sympathy of the audience —any garish showboating and nobody cares about his trials anymore. Pinto utilizes his creamy baritone voice and telling body language to field an incredibly likable performance.

El Beh is more dynamic than Pinto, but also less consistent. Her decidedly clipped and modern delivery clashes with his more Victorian dictation and some of her more tender moments come off a bit contrived. At her best though, she delivers powerhouse belting and charged emotive complexity that nicely counters Pinto’s down-to-earth style.

Fredericks is another vocal star as the witch. She has both the fastest (her part during the “Prologue”) and slowest (“The Last Midnight”) songs and manages to carry both — her diction is crisp without sounding contrived, her pitch is accurate without sounding clinical, and her intensity is undeniable.

Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel almost steal the show and don’t seem like supporting cast members at all despite their slightly briefer stage time. The Prince (Jeffrey Brian Adams) is a delightful archetype; a square-jawed, Jon Hamm look-alike who charms his way into the heart of Cinderella before realizing that he is addicted to “the rescue” of princesses. He hams it up to an extreme degree, but does so with a charming degree of self-referentiality. His vocals and timing in “Agony,” in which he bemoans the elusiveness of the princesses with Rapunzel’s Prince (Ryan McCrary, who is also solid) were perfection and his seduction of the Baker’s Wife in “Any Moment” is truly inspired Space Age Bachelor Pad-esque sexual panache.

Noelani Neal’s Rapunzel has a gorgeous tone, which she shows off during a tongue-in-cheek reoccurring vocalise that could easily have been shrill. Sadly, she fades into the woodwork a bit as the play goes on. When she’s on stage, however, she owns it, and I’m sure she will be in lead roles at the Playhouse and elsewhere before long.

The ensemble enthusiasm, also increased by the every-fiery local theater legend Maureen McVerry as Jack’s Mother and Homsley’s doe-eyed but mostly relatable Jack, carries through the play’s almost three-hour running time. Even as the unnecessarily trite and sappy ending begins to take shape (no fault of the production, just a rare miscue by Sondheim and Lapine), the chemistry and focus onstage is still palpable. All of the detractions alluded to earlier are still detractions — the set could use more space, there could have been a more unified dialect, and the frenetic action of the play is sometimes overwhelming in the weaker moments. The heart of the production, however, makes it irresistible and sure to fill seats throughout its lengthy run. 


Through Sept. 6

Tue-Thu, 7pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm (also Sat, 3pm); Sun, 2pm, $20-$120

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post, SF


A benefit series aims to keep the unique Meridian Gallery afloat


In 2001, interns at Powell Street’s Meridian Gallery planned and painted a 13×48 foot mural on the wall of the SRO Hartland Hotel, a few blocks away in the Tenderloin. The mural, a colorful and sunny street scene showcasing the multiculturalism of the neighborhood, was revered by residents and and left untouched for 10 years until it was vandalized by graffiti. In response, former interns who had worked on the project came back together and, alongside the current kids in the program, repainted the piece. The artists’ lasting willingness to help Meridian in times of need reemerges in a broader sense this week, which marks the climax of the gallery’s June Benefit Series (tonight’s entry: “16 Years of Meridian Music,” a diverse program of new music). 

Meridian Gallery, whose name comes from its mission to focus on hemispheric and cross-cultural interactions, is facing eviction. As rent around Union Square has skyrocketed, from $400 per square foot in 2007 to up to $3,000 today (according to retail consultant Helen Bulwik, quoted in a KQED report), many galleries have been forced to close their doors. The stately Perine Mansion, the three-story French Second Empire brick building where Meridian makes its home, is an especially attractive and lucrative piece of property. Instead of throwing in the towel, Anne Brodzsky, the dynamic co-founder of the gallery who has overseen its operations for over 25 years, has reached out to her friends. 

The original eviction notice was handed down in April. Some close to the gallery are convinced that despite any efforts, the rent will be impossible to pay. Others, Brodzky chief among them, think that the response to the bad news suggests a potential long-term rally from Meridian. Her optimism is fueled by two forces. First, on May 13, the SF Board of Supervisors beefed up affordability programs, including supplemental displacement funds and health benefits, for struggling art non-profits in the city. “I’m amazed by how they’ve managed to come together to help arts programs,” Brodzky exclaimed. 

More effective and instantly helpful than any bureaucratic assistance, however, have been the programs put together by artists affiliated with Meridian. Around the time of the Supervisors’ decision, Brodzky asked her gallery-mates if they were willing to stage an auction. The response was staggering; over 60 artists put up works. More astonishing to Brodzky, though, was the kind of excitement many of the participants exhibited for further events. “Bob Marsh, among many others, approached me and asked if they could stage fundraisers.” 

 Tonight, Marsh is one of the main attractions at the “16 Years of Meridian Music” showcase. An avant-garde visual artist and musician, Marsh discovered Meridian shortly after his arrival in San Francisco 14 years ago. “I started visiting galleries and found that Meridian had a wonderful monthly music series,” he says.

Marsh was inspired by the political sharpness of the organization. “I thought early on, ‘They’re not purveyors of bourgeois wallpaper,’ like so many galleries can be.” For Marsh’s offering, “The Visitor,” he’ll don his Sonic Suit #9, a wearable sculpture made from empty water bottles and other modern detritus, and engage in narrative movement to a musical accompaniment.

“He’s a visitor from another dimension,” Marsh says. “He arrives here, looks around, and has different reactions to the confusing environment that is our world.” Marsh debuted the ever-changing character at the Meridian and feels that its a fitting tribute to the openness and experimentation that the gallery fosters. 

Despite his excitement about the benefit, Marsh turns somber when discussing its necessity. “They have given so much with such passion,” he says. “It’s sad to see them persecuted by blind greed … I don’t think its personal, but everyone just wants a lot of money. Everybody thinks that’s some kind of virtue.”

Neither Brodzky, Marsh, nor other performers and Meridian affiliates with whom I talked  were quick to link the gallery’s financial troubles to a larger ill in San Francisco. They seemingly eschew that brand of macrocosmic victimhood and instead zoom in on what they can do to stay open, one step at a time. Their optimism may be healthier, but it does not mask the sad fact that rising rents are making grassroots galleries a thing of the past. If the artists continue to come together with the intensity of the mural renovation, auction, and benefit series, however, Meridian may just buck the trend.  


16 Years of Meridian Music: Composers in Performance

With Bob Marsh, Andrea Williams, Bryan Day, Phillip Greenlief and Jon Raskin’s 1+1, David Samas, Tom Bickley, and the Cornelius Cardew Choir

Thu/26, 7-10pm, $35

Meridian Gallery

535 Powell, SF


Enter if you dare! Spirited local actors highlight Jefferson Street’s ghoulish new attraction


A new attraction is coming to Fisherman’s Wharf June 26, and it’s pretty surreal. The San Francisco Dungeon, the eighth in a series by Merlin Entertainments and the first stateside (most of the other dungeons focus on medieval history and are scattered throughout Western Europe), is a subterranean labyrinth where actors lead patrons on a hodgepodge tour of creepy SF-inspired historical haunts. 

There’s obviously a lot to be skeptical of here. For one, Merlin, which is centered in the UK, is a gargantuan enterprise second only to Disney in the themed tourist trap world — other assets include Madame Tussauds, Legoland, and a bevy of contrived wildlife safaris. San Franciscans already talk a ton of smack about the half-assed efforts by huge corporate attractions on Jefferson St. to appear “local” — the one or two scattered Californian sports figures or cultural icons in Tussauds, for example, don’t conceal the sterility of the whole operation. 

My visit to the Dungeon didn’t run entirely contrary to these concerns.

The stories that the actors tell occasionally slip into generalities that have little to do with the city, some of the rooms are similarly vague, and the exclusion of the 1906 Earthquake (despite the Dungeon’s focus on 1857-1907), while explained away by artistic director Kieron Smith as too large-scale of an event to cover, feels wrong. There’s also a random water ride that, while impressive from an engineering perspective in that a boat and mini-canal was placed in a very contained space, distracts from any legitimate exchange of history or theatrics. We didn’t get to ride it though, so I’m really in no place to judge. 

Despite its adherence to certain stereotypes, the Dungeon transcends a lot of the more toxic elements that drag down other Jeffersonian locales. Smith, an extremely charming Brit who wrote the entire script for the 50-odd minute tour and has done so at all other Dungeon locations, seems genuinely passionate about the city’s more macabre lore and clearly did his research. Most of the actors’ ghoulish tales of drunken Barbary Coasters and mining ghosts are subtle and relatively specific. I can imagine the full show being nominally educational. 

The preview we received included a scary 1850s Alcatraz ghost tale that packed a legitimate punch. The barred Alcatraz Room, one of nine themed areas, provided a chilling backdrop for a crazed young woman’s recounting of her military prisoner father’s murder and subsequent haunting of the Rock. When the lights flickered and the dead father appeared, complete with gory makeup, the entire room shrieked deliriously. 

Another room, a facsimile of the headquarters of the San Francisco Hounds, a sinister crime organization that flourished in the city after the Gold Rush, was less compelling. An actor playing real-life Hounds leader Sam Roberts mimicked torture tools (including a gag penis-cutter that elicited a few half-hearted laughs) and nervously beckoned the group out of the room when the sounds of a police raid interrupted his demonstration. 

Despite the inconsistency in humor and scares, the actors themselves were all enthusiastic and believable. Since beginning rehearsal a month ago, they have learned to play every part in the tour and will alternate roles when the Dungeon opens. Many of the performers have real chops, and while they likely don’t see two-minute frenetic monologues to scared tourists as their career zeniths, the Dungeon, unlike many of the other less interactive wharf traps, is employing burgeoning artists. 

In addition to hiring local actors, the Dungeon has also worked with several area businesses. Wee Scotty, the prolific costumers headed by Lynne Gallagher, provide all of the period clothes, which look authentic and have an effectively drab and dusty aesthetic. Daniel’s Wood Land scavenged wood from the ruins of a Japanese internment camp in Arizona to panel the walls of many of the rooms — the fact that the rooms looked like they feasibly could have been from over 100 years ago as opposed to cheap plastic imitations makes the experience feel slightly more real. 

The Dungeon isn’t revolutionary — it still belongs in the gimmicky world of Fisherman’s Wharf. The artistic enthusiasm and local involvement, however, lends the entertainment a realness and grittiness that elevates it above most other overpriced diversions. 


Opens June 26, $19-$26

San Francisco Dungeon 

145 Jefferson, SF


American revolution: Smith Henderson talks ‘Fourth of July Creek’


Smith Henderson is all smiles. His debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, has been receiving rave reviews since its release two weeks ago, has a 100,000 copy pressing from HarperCollins, and was recently called “the best book I’ve read so far this year” by Washington Post critic Ron Charles.

“I was not expecting the Ron Charles thing … that was amazing,” Henderson says, sipping his beer on the outdoor patio of Farley’s East in Oakland. (He’ll be reading from the book Tue/17 at San Francisco’s Book Passage.) While the degree of success that the book is receiving tickles Henderson, he doesn’t pretend to be shocked that people are enjoying his work. “When people tell me ‘I love your book,’ I’m happy, but not chagrined. I wrote the book toward my interests, so of course I like my book.” Henderson smokes a cigarette as he chuckles. 

His novel explores the plight of Pete Snow, a Montana social worker who discovers a feral boy, Benjamin, and his survivalist father Jeremiah Pearl. While dealing with the dissolution of his own family, several other cases, and a tumultuous romance, Snow uncovers Pearl’s revolutionary ideas and begins to question his own safety and that of his entire community, the rural town of Tenmile. Henderson’s intertwining plot confronts a plethora of contemporary societal ailments, including alcoholism, suspicion of government, child neglect, cultural polarization, and the gift and curse of religion. 

Much of our conversation concerned the intricate plot points that Henderson somehow manages to sew together seamlessly. Such a combination of topicality and technical flourish has led Charles and several other high-profile critics to throw around words like “Great American Novel,” meaning work consistent enough and broad enough in  political scope to say something profound and lasting about the nation. 

Henderson isn’t one to label his own work, but he doesn’t entirely laugh off the potential hyperbole either. “I think it’s tricky to use words like ‘Great American Novel’ because it’s set in Montana — it’s a very white state. There’s a lack of diversity that I think is necessary in talking about the whole country.” After a moment of rumination, however, he offers a partial refutation of his own point. “That being said, the novels that come to mind are pretty regional as well; Beloved is pretty focused on a single location and group.”

While Montana might not be the optimal mirror for America, it’s a place that Henderson knows quite well. A native son, he grew up in the state and went to college, like Pete Snow, in Missoula. (He now lives in Portland, Ore.) “My whole family are cowboys and loggers. My dad is still a logger,” he says proudly. “Montana is a weird place … there’s a libertarian streak that is pretty unique in how it manifests itself.” 

Henderson cites the 2004 election, in which Montana voted for George W. Bush, legalized medical marijuana, and constitutionally banned gay marriage all on the same ballot. The odd mix between “live free or die” and socially conservative practices in the state provided an ideal climate for the confrontation between Snow, a government employee with the Department of Family Services, and the fiercely anti-authority Pearl. The eventual escalation between the government and the community is easy to believe. 

“Things are always liable to get a bit wacky and out of control up there,” says Henderson. 

Yet Henderson, while by no means conservative or religious, isn’t trying to write a book about extreme zealots. “At first it’s possible to look at Pearl and think he’s completely insane. But a lot of his paranoia is not entirely unfounded.” 

Near the end of the book, Pearl uses an example of government agencies  replenishing the Montana wolf population as an example of how dangerous Federalism can become. “Pearl basically suggests, ‘You may think your wolves are pretty, but they are liable to eat me.’ That lack of practicality is real.” 

While Henderson set Fourth of July Creek in the early 1980s, he was inspired by the rhetoric going on in national politics today. “Arguments like those of Pearl’s are all over the place right now, and initially they may seem just as paranoid. But when you have unmitigated drone strikes and NSA surveillance it isn’t impossible to see where people are coming from.” 

He does, however, see the value of government intervention — Helena pays his ultimately heroic (or at least likeably anti-heroic) protagonist, after all. “On the other hand, you have health care, gay rights, the environment, all receiving meaningful support.”

Though informed and interested in the modern state of affairs, Henderson was very intentional in his chronological setting of the book. He leans forward and takes on a quieter, more intense tone as he talks about the era directly succeeding Carter’s economic and military failures. “1980 was an inflection point. Obviously Carter, while getting a lot right, struggled a ton in the implementation. And the backlash to that, coming in the form of the Reagan Revolution, has really defined modern society … We learned how to make wealth out of thin air — at least for some people.” 

Reagan’s election and the surrounding rhetoric takes center stage in the book. Judge Dyson, an aging and alcoholic Democrat, openly weeps as he watches the election results with Snow. “It was the death of the LBJ, rural-big-government Democrat. And that’s something I’m not sure we’ll ever get back.” 

In addition to highlighting the philosophical shifts that have led to the urbanization of liberal thought, Henderson also uses the relatively unorganized pre-digital bureaucracy as a major plot device. “There was no concept of secondary trauma in 1980 Montana. There was no social worker to help Pete deal with the horrific things that he sees on a daily basis.” 

The dearth of support systems fuel Snow’s drinking bouts, depression, and difficulty in handling his daughter’s disappearance and ex-wife’s instability; he may be a great social worker, but the state’s inability to track his emotional progress and casework eats away at his life.

A fascinating storyteller and political force, Henderson is also often  technically experimental. The portion of the book that details Snow’s daughter’s descent is done in the form of an anonymous question and answer. “When I write, I almost always write questions to myself: ‘Where is Pete Snow from?’ ‘Choteau.’ ‘Why Choteau?’ For the Rachel section, I just left it in that form.” 

But the section is far from unfinished. Henderson left the section as is because of the intensity of its content — in a pure third-person narrative it felt too stilted. “The voices are full of an anxiety and intensity that couldn’t be captured with the more impartial voice in the rest of the book.”

The frenetic 90 minutes that we spent discussing Fourth of July Creek further convinced me that the book cannot be distilled to one message, but is rather a varied rumination on insecurity, suspicion, and government. When I asked Henderson what he thinks the primary takeaway is, however, he was remarkably candid and quick in his response. He pointed me to the Thoreau quotation that opens the book: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” 

Henderson then highlighted a passage in which Snow is likened to a priest for how much he gives up to help dysfunctional families. “America in the ‘80s was losing trust for institutions, and continues to. Despite all of his flaws, Pete is worthy of our trust, and hopefully represents a powerful refutation of Thoreau’s instant suspicion for government or those who come to help us.”

Henderson’s creation, while transcending political ideology, powerfully shows the potential for altruism even in a country as broken as the US.


Smith Henderson

Tue/17, 12:30pm, free

Book Passage

1 Ferry Building, SF