Liberty Bradford Mitchell’s story of pornography, family and murder could so easily come across as a public form of therapy. Given what she and her family have been through, that would certainly be understandable and maybe even interesting in a sort of voyeuristic way. But Bradford Mitchell, working with director Michael T. Weiss has crafted something much richer and more interesting in The Pornographer’s Daughter, a show for solo performer and rock band now at Z Below.
Bradford Mitchell is the daughter of Artie Mitchell and niece of Jim Mitchell, the infamous Mitchell Brothers, purveyors of porn and major players in the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Best known for their “porn palace,” the Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and the landmark porn feature Behind the Green Door, the brothers became millionaires as they rode changing attitudes toward porn on the way to creating an empire. Their story ends darkly, with Jim murdering his younger brother in 1991 and then serving only three years of his six-year prison sentence (Bradford Mitchell tells us he was a “model prisoner”) before dying of a heart attack in 1997.
What could be a lurid tale, in Bradford Mitchell’s hands, becomes a wry jaunt through the culture of the late ’60s and into the ’70s and ’80s. Leading up to the details of the murder is the best part of the show as the writer/performer paints a realistic but rather sardonic picture of what it was like to be part of the Mitchell clan.
We hear how the brothers got started in their film careers in an Antioch garage and how they aspired to Kubrick or Coppola heights. But once on the adult entertainment treadmill, with the flow of money ever increasing, those dreams were fed into the porn world. First came the purchase of the theater and then came the desire to up the porn ante with more legit feature films starring the likes of Ivory Snow girl Marilyn Chambers. Soon enough, the O’Farrell was the go-to spot for celebrities (well hello, Warren Beatty and Sammy Davis Jr.), and the Mitchells and their families were living like royalty.
Bradford Mitchell tells all of this from her distinct perspective, and it soon becomes clear that her remarkable sense of humor has been something of a saving grace in a life that could have gone in many different directions. That she was derided by her father for being a square is ironic, but so is the fact that as a 4-year-old, she was exposed to skin flicks at her father’s workplace but grew up to be a “Little House on the Prairie”-loving adolescent. She would occasionally escape the world of “naked movies,” as her younger self described them, by visiting her maternal grandparents back east – the descendants from the Mayflower who inspired Bradford Mitchell to describe her heritage as “blue blood and blue movies.” She also went away to a performing arts high school, where she fell under the thrall of musical theater (“It was the honky version of Fame,” she says of the experience).
With college and maturity came complications and a increasingly complex relationship with her father, who divorced her lawyer mother when she was 6. And then, of course, she had to deal with the practically Shakespearean murder of her father by her uncle.
All of this is told with affection, intelligence and stirring emotion over the course of about 80 minutes. Bradford Mitchell is accompanied by a three-piece rock band known as The Fluffers (wink) to smooth transitions and keep the energy level high. There is a song performed, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” but its one of the show’s few lapses into the cheesy. Otherwise, Bradford Mitchell offers a highly polished performance and a script that is tightly focused and often quite funny and well observed.
She also gets a big assist from designer Jeff Rowlings, who positions a giant green door on the stage (no need for subtlety here), a sharply effective lighting design and a rear projection screen that boasts a vast array of images (not a few of which are quite X-rated) designed by Skye Borgman (with an assist by Brendan West). It would be impossible to tell this tale of movies and madness without the imagery of the time. The video screen also provides a key tether to reality. As slick and as expertly presented as this show is, it’s also a true story. It’s Bradford Mitchell’s very personal story, so it’s nice to see the players – especially Artie – represented.
In the end, The Pornographer’s Daughter, for all its zippy theatricality, is really a burnished tribute from a loving daughter to her dad.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Liberty Bradford Mitchell’s The Pornographer’s Daughter continues through Feb. 16 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $32. Visit www.pdtheplay.com.