San Francisco theater gratifies all tastes

by Sean Hillen

As the classic ‘60s hit song says, ‘If you’re going to San Francisco, Be sure to…’ enjoy quality theater. Here are four diverse choices out of the many offered.

‘Beach Blanket Babylon’ at Club Fugazi

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Photo courtesy of Club Fugazi

For something utterly zany, join the boisterous crowd at Club Fugazi and indulge in the sheer lunacy of ‘Beach Blanket Babylon,’ a colorful, comical revue that has been running in the city, in regularly updated versions, since 1974. Magnificently massive hats are the show’s signature image with performers balancing them precariously – mocking the laws of gravity – on their heads, some shaped as giant boxes of crackers and the pièce de résistance being the skyline of San Francisco.

This show doesn’t rely on complex plot, instead focusing on the adventures of Snow White, played with moon-eyed innocence by Ruby Day, dressed in Disney style, as she searches for a prince. During her somewhat surreal journey across the globe looking for love, including stints in Paris and Rome, and with the help of her fairy godmother, Glinda, played gleefully by Renee Lubin, she encounters a startling cast of exuberant celebrity characters. The ‘A’ star list is impressive and includes Barack and Michelle Obama who arrive on-stage to a pounding, revised version of ‘Rock Around the Clock;’ Bill and Hillary Clinton; Coco Chanel; Kim Kardashian; Vladimir Putin, starring Curt Branom, with ‘Puttin’ On the Ritz,’ as his entrance song cue; Adele; Sarah Palin; Madonna; sporting her famous cone bra; and, of course, President Donald Trump on a bad hair day (with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un in tow).

It’s silly, it’s whacky, it’s fresh and funny, it’s a color extravaganza of an artist’s palette, and the costumes are simply stunning. You’ll need a drink or two to maintain decent decorum in the face of such stage madness. Fortunately, seating is at small bar tables throughout the room, with fast and reliable service.

‘Head Over Heels’ at the Curran Theatre

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Photo courtesy of Curran Theatre

‘Head Over Heels’ at the ornate Curran Theatre is also a little madcap, though much less so than ‘Beach Blanket Babylon.’ Though based on ‘The Arcadia’ written in Middle English iambic pentameter in the 16thcentury by Sir Philip Sidney, don’t let that put you off. For over 400 years, it has richly entertained with its sensational treatment of sex, politics, violence, soporifics, mobs, and cross-dressing. And it continues to do so in this, a contemporary guise conceived by Jeff Whitty, adapted by James Magruder and based on the music of the ‘80s group, the Go-Gos.

The story begins when the Duke of Arcadia, Basilius, receives a bleak prediction from the oracle at Delphos: his daughters will be stolen by undesirable suitors, he will be cuckolded by his wife, and his throne will be usurped by a foreign state. Sounds like a standard Medieval tale, doesn’t it? Except things become confused when – without revealing too many plot details – the king’s youngest daughter falls for a lowly shepherd, who then dresses as a shapely Amazonian warrior to woo her, and his eldest daughter turns out to be not quite what he, or indeed she, thought she was. Highlights of the show are the comical antics of lovelorn Musidorus, played wonderfully by Andrew Durand, as the hapless suitor who’ll go to almost any lengths to win the heart of Princess Philoclea; Mopsa, daughter of the king’s viceroy, played by Taylor Iman Jones, who narrates this tale of misunderstanding leading to tolerance; a contagious, full-cast performance of ‘We Got the Beat;’ and the music of a five-piece group high up in the stage rafters, whose identity is only revealed only at the end, to most people’s obvious delight.

‘The Waiting Period’ at The Marsh

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Photo by Carla Befera

‘The Waiting Period’ at intimate 100-seat The Marsh theater in the Mission district is a 75-minute show of a completely different nature to the abovementioned two. A one-person performance by talented broadcaster and playwright, Brian Copeland, it tracks an actual event in his life: the mandatory 10-day period he had to wait to obtain a gun to shoot himself and put an end to the depression that haunted him after his wife left him with three kids and the death of his grandmother who had raised him. While the subject matter seems to ooze grief and gloom, Copeland, with a single chair as his only stage prop, injects a lot of humor into the script without detracting from his serious intent – to focus attention on a disease that affects millions worldwide and offer hope to those who suffer from it.

His gallows humor emerges from the opening scene as he searches for a suitable gun store and compares the embarrassment of being seen to that of entering a strip club, a Walmart, or even a Justin Bieber concert. Noticing posters of bikini-clad beach women in the store, all packing heat and trying hard to look sexy and lethal at the same time, he remarks, “I’ve been married twice. They were either lethal or sexy. Never both.” Handling a gun for the first time, he dubs it a “little black steel penis extender,” explaining, “you know, not everyone can afford a Corvette.” His comments on Chinese take-outs and their links to depression are keenly observed.

Kudos to director David Ford, who balances, as one reviewer put it, ‘grit with wit,’ making sure the show is never too harrowing to watch. Copeland donates the show’s proceeds to the theater and to educational initiatives about depression.

‘The Gangster of Love’ at the Magic Theatre

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Photo by Jennifer Reiley

If you want to see a world premiere, head to the Magic Theatre this weekend, now in its 50th year of operation. It hosts ‘The Gangster of Love’ written by Jessica Hagedorn, the playwright’s own story of immigration from Manila. Based on her book of the same name, Raquel ‘Rocky’ Rivera and her eccentric family settle in the Haight during the 1970s, providing a window to a dynamic period of conflict, as well as social and artistic change in San Francisco. Directed by Loretta Greco, the show is a multi-faceted one, featuring live music, poetry reading and music video as key narrative forms.

Starting with the dramatic image of two sets of eyes scanning the horizon for a first sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, this coming-of-age story re-creates the heady experiences of a teenage émigré set on exploring the colorful world of San Francisco and her young brother, Voltaire, often sullen and quiet, who is less enthralled to be torn away from his native homeland. A 10-member cast, some playing dual roles, create what one reviewer described as a, “trippy, music-and-color-lush portrait of a San Francisco still known for puka-shell necklaces, wild-colored pants and skimpy tops, and fringe-swinging coats of suede” with a set that is “mesmerizing and exciting with its painted back wall of iridescent scenes,” as well as projections that form “waves of water, floods of raindrops, skies crowed with stars, and dozens of other miraculous and stunning effects.”

Hagedorn, a Guggenheim Fellow, is an accomplished writer, with several novels to her name, including ‘Dogeaters,’ which won the American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction.

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