Wednesday, January 29, 2020

SF Ballet's "Cinderella"

The San Francisco Ballet opened their 2020 season with a revival of their 2013 production of Prokofiev's full-length, 1945 ballet Cinderella. I saw it for the first time last Wednesday, and the show is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen on the War Memorial Opera House stage. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's production is a wonder, with lavishly creative sets and costumes by Julian Crouch, amusing puppetry design by Basil Twist, and exquisite lighting by Natasha Katz. This is all pulled together by one of Prokofiev's greatest musical scores that is filled with wit, tenderness, darkness, and longing, with the Ballet orchestra giving a tremendous performance under conductor David LaMarche.

The principal dancers rotate during this two-week run, and I saw Dores André as Cinderella and Carlo Di Lanno as Prince Guillaume, pictured above. (All photos are snapshots I took from the SF Ballet program, original production photos by Erik Tomasson). Both dancers were beautiful to watch but did not quite transport one to the romantic stratosphere, but it didn't matter because all the other many dancers were so much fun to watch in roles ranging from The Fates to royalty to servants to gnomes.

With the collaboration of playwright/screenwriter Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Longtime Companion), Wheeldon created a revised libretto for the ballet that jettisoned the fairy godmother and ticking clock in the ballroom scene that were featured in Prokofiev's 1945 original, and it worked brilliantly well without any changes to the music. Act One begins with a prequel of the death of Cinderella's mother, followed by a scene at her grave where a tree is planted. By the end of the act it has become a character of its own, changing with the seasons and moving psychedelically to Prokofiev's astonishing score.

As usual with most onstage versions of this tale, from Rossini's Cenerentola to Massenet's magical Cendrillon, the evil stepmother and stepsisters steal the show. Jennifer Stahl as Stepmother Hortensia, Jahna Frantziskonis as Stepsister Edwina, and Julia Rowe as Stepsister Clementine were both scary and funny, and they also pulled off the trick of appearing to dance badly while dancing very well indeed. In this version, the Prince's best friend Benjamin, danced with verve and character by Hansuke Yamamoto, ends up taking a shine to Stepsister Clementine and rescues her from evil stepmother Hortensia, who was performed brilliantly by Jennifer Stahl in some of my favorite dancing of the evening.

Instead of roaming the world to find someone whose foot fits the glass slipper, the Prince is presented with an hysterical lineup of characters that included Russian Princess Maggie Weirich, Spanish Princess Kimberly Marie Olivier, Balinese Princess Elizabeth Powell, and various gnomes before finally finding his Cinderella. There are two more performances of the show this weekend, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Women's March 2020

The loathsome March for Life flooded the Civic Center neighborhood today for their annual Market Street march opposing abortion, and as an antidote here are a few photos from last week's annual Women's March down the same route.

Best musical contingent was the mostly female Taiko drum group on Larkin Street with somebody holding up a sign that read, "Drum Like A Girl."

The half million plus people who showed up for the first Women's March just after Trump had been elected president of the U.S. has dwindled to about 50,000 through exhaustion and depression after three years of everyone's worst fears coming true.

But it's important to stand up, represent, and push back against what are essentially evil forces raging through the world right now. I'm reading the Aenead by Virgil on my work commute, and just when the Trojans have finally found a home in what is to become Italy after many misfortunes, the powerful goddess Juno decides to let hell loose in the form of a Fury with snakes on her head who poisons people's souls with lies and hatred. I have a feeling the second half of the epic poem is going to be an all-out, useless, needless war. That particular Fury seems to have returned with a vengeance these days, and can only be countered by women like the above from the Nuclear Beauty Parlor with their "Don't Curl Up and Dye" signs.

There were contingents for various Democratic Presidential candidates in the parade, and it was amusing to see a dude holding a "WOMEN FOR PETE" sign as he canvassed his way down Market Street.

I ran into a young man with a Bernie Sanders sign next to the Elizabeth Warren contingent and I asked him if he was intentionally trolling the group right behind him. He laughed and said, "No, I just fell behind from the Bernie group." I'm going to be voting for Elizabeth Warren in the upcoming March primary, and am putting many wishes out there for her success because the country and the wider world would be very lucky to have her at the helm of our crumbling, out-of-control American empire.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Kinetic Transformation with SF Contemporary Music Players

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players gave an adventurous concert last Friday at the SF Conservatory of Music. It started with the marvelous young cellist, Hannah Addario-Berry, playing Gloria Justen's Flowing-Turning Dance, a piece Hannah commissioned for her 2016 album, Scordatura. It was a lovely opening, a modernist take on a Bach cello suite with overtones of Eastern European folk tunes.

The second piece was the West Coast premiere of David Coll's 2016 Caldera for the weird combination of bass clarinet and marimba, made even odder with the addition of tinfoil to both instruments for strange, scraping effects. Jeff Anderle (pictured above) and Haruka Fujii were the wildly virtuosic soloists, and I really enjoyed the piece, with its soft, scratching opening exploding into both instruments unchained, or at least unmuted with tinfoil.

The first half of the concert ended with Henry Cowell's revolutionary 1935 String Quartet #3 (Mosaic) which has five short movements that can be played and repeated in any order that the players prefer with the proviso that the dance-like fifth movement should finish off the work in a single iteration. Being a huge fan of Cowell in general and his United String Quartet in particular, I was looking forward to hearing this for the first time but the performance was strangely soporific, and I longed for a more energized ensemble with different choices in both the order and repetition of the movements.

The second half started with Anna Clyne's 2006 Steelworks for bass clarinet, percussion, flute, prerecorded digital track, and a four-screen multimedia display. The 15-minute motoric work was lively and absorbing. In the middle of the piece, the digital track stopped and there was a long pause while they tried to figure out how and where to restart.

Rather than being a disaster, it felt like a performance that was perfectly consonant with the remainder of the indeterminate program. The fine performers were Tod Brody on flute, the remarkable Haruka Fujii on percussion, and Jeff Anderle on bass clarinet again.

Artistic director Eric Dudley introduced the final piece, a rare performance of John Cage's 1958 Concert for Piano and Orchestra. In the photo above, he is giving an overlong speech to his donor base while flanked by one of the two sign language interpreters for a large sector of the audience which was deaf, attracted to the concert by the appearance of a local dance luminary, Antoine Hunter (photo below), who is also deaf.

The original performance was a collaboration between two high priests of modernism, the publicly closeted couple of choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage. The performers, anchored by the pianist Kate Campbell in this performance, play whatever they want whenever they want within certain rigorous guidelines set up by Cage. The score, which was projected above the ensemble, is a series of calligraphic notations that are meant to evoke sounds that are up to the performer. Hunter had choreographed his own dance in between all the performers which didn't have anything to do with the music, but that was part of the point.

Pianist Campbell did a fine job at whatever it was she was playing, and the interjected squawks and sawing from the surrounding instrumentalists was interesting for about five minutes, but I found the 30-minute work nearly interminable. Cage, as usual, has the best words: "“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Cockettes Are Golden 4

On Saturday, January 4th, there was a line stretching for a block to enter the Victoria Theater on 16th Street for a 50th anniversary celebration of The Cockettes' first show on New Years Eve at the Palace Theater in Chinatown/North Beach in 1969.

The audience turned out to be half the fun just as they were at the original midnight movie Cockettes shows, including my friend Dionysio above who was one of the original gay hippies of San Francisco before becoming a Muni mechanic for decades. He recently retired and has made a full-blown return to the mystical Fairy fold.

The show started 30 minutes late because everyone in the audience refused to sit down while catching up with old friends who hadn't ventured out of their apartments for years. The complex stage set-up with a large video screen overhanging the physical performers also had technical problems, so the emcee Russell Blackwood had to improvise brilliantly at the beginning. He introduced the surviving Cockettes in attendance who were stationed on either side of the stage in front of the proscenium. Pictured above, left to right, are Tahara, Ocean Michael Moon (the literal grown-up baby who used to wander the stage in the early 1970s as an infant), the costume designer Bill Bowers, and Scotty Tissue.

Technical issues solved, Russell wound back into his stemwinder speech about New Years Eve 1969 at the Palace when a half dozen stoned, glittery, bearded characters jumped on the stage to dance around and sing to a Rolling Stones song, and suddenly the aisles at the Victoria were filled with performers jumping onto the stage, recreating the historical moment in a joyful burst of energy.

Excerpts from Palace, a 1970 silent film by Syd Dutton and Scott Runyon, documenting backstage and onstage antics of a 1970 Halloween show, Les Ghouls, was shown.

Fayette Hauser and Pam Tent offered a running commentary onstage while the film was playing, telling one crazy anecdote after another. "Remember that woman from The Committee in North Beach who liked to join us and get naked onstage? Somebody gave her a mega dose of MDA that night and she ended up passing out onstage and had to be taken off on a wheeled stretcher up the aisle. The audience thought it was all part of the show."

The filmmaker John Waters was next and upstaged everyone by offering a brilliant, rousing testimonial. "I moved to San Francisco in 1970. I didn't know anybody. I didn't know who the Cockettes were. I wanted my gutter film, Mondo Trasho, to be shown. I read about the Palace and they were talking about Nocturnal Dream Shows. And I thought, wow. Underground movies and Busby Berkeley musicals, drag shows and the Cockettes. Who in the hell were they? I went to the show but before the show even started, I was so amazed at the audience which was as shocking as the show. Hippie gay guys, finally! It was so great to see them, you know. And drag queens with beards reading Lenin. They thought the revolution really was going to happen. I knew it wasn't but I liked watching. These drag queens didn't want to be Miss America or Bess Myerson. They wanted to be Janice Joplin with a dick. And girl Cockettes. So great. Ruby Keelers on acid. Female female impersonators with full pussy power."

Waters continued: "I was in cinema heaven. You know, people think the Cockettes were noncommercial. But when I finally played the Palace, as Judy Garland used to sing, I made some money. And it helped pay back my dad who backed these movies and attracted future pot dealer financial backers. And Sebastian (pictured above, offering his own memories). I really salute you. I really, really do. Because this so-called show businessman behind the Palace shows, if you could call that showbiz, a $2 admission and half the audience sneaking in for free. And I wouldn't be here today without Sebastian's help when I first got here. He had the Secret Cinema that many people have forgotten which was another showcase, probably completely illegal theater in an old loft that showed crackpot double bills every day for the cinema insane. He's the one who booked Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs. He's the one who paid for Divine to fly out in full drag on the airplane to appear at the Palace. The day the Cockettes all met Divine at the airport in full drag. Can you imagine that today? "Is it Liberace?" the flight attendants are screaming. Imagine today if hundreds of drag queens showed up at the airport. It would be a terrorist alert. They would be locked up in a second...The Cockettes were hippies. I thought Divine would scare hippies, really. Divine was hardly a hippie. He wanted to be Liz Taylor and Godzilla in one person."

"And let's not forget drugs. "Oh, let's leave out drugs. The Cockettes were more than that," I read recently. You've got to be kidding. Not mentioning the drugs when you talk about Cockettes is like talking about New Year's Eve without liquor. We were all on drugs. And it was fun! So much so that Mink Stole and I celebrated our 50th anniversary of knowing each other by taking LSD again last year. Not those pussy micro doses you all take. This was twelve hours of hallucinations. My Mom says, "Don't tell young people to take drugs." I'm not. I'm telling old people to. If you took LSD back in the old days when you were watching the Cockettes and liked it, do it again. They can't say you're having a senior moment, you're trippin'...The Cockettes have withstood the test of time. Their legend is cemented in America's lunatic history. We all deserve ATD. Cockettes then, Cockettes now, and Cockettes forever."

Following another film with outtakes from The Cockettes, a 2002 documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber, the live theatrical section of the show resumed with dozens of performers from the recently disbanded Thrillpeddlers troupe recreating musical numbers from the original Palace shows and their own revivals at the Hypnodrome. This included a few numbers from the fabulously successful Pearls Over Shanghai with Steven Satyricon and Ruby Vixen above...

...and Birdie-Bob Watt with Earl Alfred Paus.

Jef Valentine channeled the late Divine who performed A Crab on Uranus (...means you're loved) at the Palace 50 years ago.

A Thrillpeddler favorite, Eric Tyson Wertz, sang the lead on No Nose Nanook...

...and the entire cast assembled for a tribute to Hibiscus, the LSD infused theatrical golden boy who was one of the presiding spirits of the Cockettes before returning to New York and an early death from AIDS. There were many more musical numbers over the course of the long night, but I didn't stay for them all because the first intermission was at 10:30, and like many of the survivors of that era, I'm old and wanted to sleep. Also, I knew the deplorable California Assemblyman Scott Weiner was going to be onstage in the second half handing out a proclamation and I didn't want to create a scene.

I am sorry to have missed Thrillpeddlers director and founder Russell Blackwood stepping out of his suit and into a dress for The Hot Twat of Tangier number from the musical Hot Greeks. Blackwood has been retired for over two years now, and his leadership and theatrical spirit are sorely missed in San Francisco. Together with composer, singer and Music Director Scrumbly Koldewyn (who I somehow failed to photograph on this evening), they created more than a rehashed revival of The Cockettes, forming a rowdy, sexy, funny, semi-professional theatrical troupe that had its own gestalt. It was lovely and a bit melancholy watching a tribute to the end of two different eras, and I felt lucky to have experienced a bit of both of them.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Cockettes Are Golden 3

The Thrillpeddlers revivals of Cockettes musicals from the early 1970s occasionally included a few of the original performers who had managed to survive the ensuing four decades, including left to right “Sweet" Pam, Rumi Misabu, and Scrumbly Koldeywn who reunited in 2013 for Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma. Photo by Dan Nicoletta.

The original Cockettes would just sing whatever copyrighted song they wanted to warble within a show, but that wasn't possible for The Thrillpeddlers so Scrumbly was forced to write new songs to fill in and many were wonders, including a few he wrote for Jewels in Paris, a review of songs and skits set in Gay Paree.

Koldewyn is an accomplished musician who not only composes and sings professionally, but also musically directs actors who are not trained singers in wise fashion. As Russell Blackwood, the Thrillpeddlers director told me in an interview, "Thanks to Scrumbly, we all really did get better musically over the years. Dancing, maybe not, but singing definitely."

The shows were also sensually daring in an interesting manner that usually felt less exploitive than genuinely sexy, especially since they involved bodies of all ages and genders that are still being invented.

In the ill-fated election year of 2016, they presented The Untamed Stage. The final Thrillpeddlers/Cockettes show was not a revival but a completely new show with music by Koldewyn set in Weimar Berlin. The composer noted that the musical inspiration was the songbook of Hollaender and Spoliansky, and since he wasn't able to get the rights to perform those originals for this show, Koldewyn decided to write his own new material in the style of the 20s Berlin songs. "Not to compete with Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, I chose to carry the irony and the explicitness a step or two further. However, the themes remain the same: man-devouring vamps, the blending of gender, social commentary, etc. These are songs intended to be performed with that certain Berliner attitude: "We are who we are."

The Thrillpeddlers troupe was an amazing collection of characters, and it attracted fearless young artists like Diogo Zavadzki above as a Hitler Youth who goes to the Magic Theater and transforms into a drag rock star.

The fabulous Bruna Palmeiro played The Existential Cow who is injected with an experimental Superman serum, grows phallic udders, and participates in an orgy with the Lost Boys.

Then the Nazis came in and machine-gunned the entire cast, a fitting ending for both the play and the Thrillpeddlers itself. The philanthropic owners of the small, two-story building which housed the Hypnodrome, announced the sale of the building after providing cheap rent for 13 years. (Note to arts philanthropists: Providing cheap rent is one of the greatest gifts any performing troupe can receive. If you have a favorite group of performers and some unused real estate, put them together for the good of all.)

In March of 2017, there was a huge rummage sale of wigs, costumes, props, and sets.

The sale was both a reunion of sorts and a bittersweet farewell for the troupe.

Russell Blackwood, the founder and general director of the troupe, who never asked local arts grants agencies for subsidies, announced his retirement at the sale and so far he has kept that vow. Recently I asked him what he missed most about the Thrillpeddlers and the simple answer was "the people." And what did he miss the least? "The liability," he replied. "What if somebody got hurt? What if we put on a show where nobody came and I was stuck with paying out of my pocket? It was always there at the back of my mind, and that weight has been gone for the last three years." However, after "sitting with my spouse through more hockey games on TV than you can believe," he was given permission to put together a 50th Anniversary of the Cockettes show, which occurred on the stage of the Victoria Theater in the Mission last Saturday. Stay tuned for a report on the show.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

In Pursuit of Venus (Infected)

If you get a chance, and particularly if you have an SF Fine Arts Museum membership, make sure you get to the deYoung Museum this weekend for the last two days of a 70-foot mobile mural on the second floor that's a marvel.

For years the museum has displayed a large mural of French wallpaper from the beginning of the 19th century depicting the three Pacific Ocean voyages of Captain Cook. Called Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, translated as Native Peoples of the South Pacific, it's a fanciful depiction that has light-skinned "savages" walking about Eden in classical Roman outfits.

Lisa Reihana has created an historical corrective that is the most amazing mixture of flat, two-dimensional painting and video human actors, both English sailors and South Sea natives played mostly by Maoris from New Zealand. The mural moves right to left so that there are about a half dozen vignettes happening simultaneously before rolling off the screen.

The vignettes range from confrontations to musical and dancing performances to boredom while standing at attention in a full English wool uniform to murder.

The 32-minute piece is in a constant loop and the details are worth noticing, from the minutely animated ocean waves to a painter dealing with flies as he tries to capture a dead tropical fish on canvas.

Jonathan Curiel at SF Weekly wrote a good essay on the piece recently, which is how I was alerted to the piece. In any case, try to go see the work for yourself, which closes tomorrow, Sunday, January 5th.