Theater review: `Three on a Party’


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JoAnne Winter is Cora and Ryan Tasker is Billy in Two on a Party, a theatrical adaptation of a Tennessee Williams short story and a co-production of Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros. The story is one of a trilogy, alongside work by Gertrude Stein and Armistead Maupin, and part of an evening dubbed Three on a Party. Photos by Kent Taylor

Something to celebrate: `Party’ trio brings out best in Word for Word, Rhino

You know something’s working when even Gertrude Stein is the life of the party.

It’s no exaggeration at this point to say that Word for Word is magical. For 16 years now, this company has been creating some of the best theater in the Bay Area out of short works of fiction. Though they change not a word of the original text, their stage works are fully theatrical and quite often more exciting, more moving and more expertly performed than work created expressly for the theater.

The Word for Word alchemy – take a story, add a stage, throw in a dash of brilliance – receives a jolt of inspiration with a new collaborator in the form of Theatre Rhinoceros, the nation’s oldest, continuously operating gay and lesbian theater. The two companies join forces for Three on a Party, an evening of three short stories by gay authors spanning the 20th century, from Stein’s Miss Furr and Miss Skeene (written in 1910, published in Vanity Fair in 1922) to Tennessee Williams’ Two On a Party (written in 1951, published in 1954) to Armistead Maupin’s Suddenly Home (written in 1990).

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I tried to read the Stein story and, to be perfectly honest, couldn’t get through it, which is why I’m all the more impressed with director Delia MacDougall for not only making the story a vibrant piece of theater but also for giving it fully rounded characters and emotional depth. Apparently Stein was trying to do in words what Picasso, in his cubist phase, was doing on canvas. Her Miss Furr and Miss Skeene is almost Dr. Seuss-like in its constant use of the words “gay” and “regular.”

Here’s a taste: “Certainly Helen Furr would not find it gay to stay, she did not find it gay, she said she would not stay, she said she did not find it gay, she said she would not stay where she did not find it gay, she said she found it gay where she did stay and she did stay there where very many were cultivating something. She did say there. She always did find it gay there.”

But MacDougall, along with JoAnne Winter as Miss Furr and Sheila Balter as Miss Skeene and Brendan Godfrey and Ryan Tasker as the people in their lives, find the music and the humor in Stein. What had a tendency to become annoying on the page finds new life and clarity on the stage.

The centerpiece of the evening is the hour-long Williams story about two sozzled soul mates, Cora (Winter) and Billy (Tasker). She’s a barfly with a voracious sexual appetite, and he’s a gay writer more interested in liaisons than letters. They meet in a Broadway bar (where Balter is at the piano playing “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”), and over a double rye on the rocks, recognize something in one another that leads them to join forces – on the man hunt and as partners, of a sort, in life. They begin living and traveling together in pursuit, as Billy says, “of the lyric quarry.” They even make a misguided attempt at sex, which Cora sweetly brushes aside: “Sex has to be slightly selfish to have any real excitement.”

Williams’ writing is thrilling as what seems to be a fairly shallow tale of vice, brutality and hooch deepens into a love story about loneliness, companionship and sexual attraction. Director John Fisher finds endlessly clever ways to keep the story moving and evolving and makes expert use of a giant rectangle that is, by turns, a bar, a hotel desk, a train compartment, an elevator and a Buick Roadmaster.

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Winter and Tasker are extraordinary as they imbue the lush life of their characters with wells of emotion. Cora, whose eyes are described as “a couple of poached eggs in a sea of blood,” is above all else a kind person, and Winter makes that abundantly clear. Cora is complex and darkly shadowed but easy to love. Tasker’s Billy is somewhat aloof, which is not to say he lacks vitality. There’s nothing simple about him, but he’s a visitor to this rambling, shambling life and will eventually return to his world of words and leave life “on the party” behind.

The final piece of the trilogy belongs to San Francisco’s own Maupin, who sets his tale in an idyllic Noe Valley, where Will (Godfrey) and his husband, Jamie (Tasker), are making a happy life for themselves in the shadow of the AIDS plague. They’re visited by Will’s sister, Tess (Balter), who is on her way to Maui and a marriage with a man who treats her less than well.

Also directed by Fisher, and set to the bouncy-but-needy strains of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” Suddenly Home has the familiar rhythms of a sitcom but with some welcome sass and cynicism. Jamie, an AIDS activist, has just returned from a demonstration at Nordstrom and the spiral escalator. He describes it as being “like Tiananmen Square meets Busby Berkeley.”

This is Balter and Godfrey’s chance to shine, and their warmth and familial friction gives the piece a beating heart and some realistic edge.

I’ve said it before, and I plan on saying it again and again: there’s nothing better than a good Word for Word show, and this collaboration with Theatre Rhino is good times three and then some.


Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros’ Three on a Party continues an extended run through June 21 at Theatre Rhino, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 415-861-5079 or visit or

Word for Word, Rhino throw a `Party’

Armistead Maupin

I wrote a story for today’s San Francisco Chronicle about the first collaboration between Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros. The two venerable companies are producing Three on a Party, an evening of short stories by Gertrude Stein, Tennessee Williams and Armistead Maupin.

Read the story here.

For information about Three on a Party visit or

Theater by the Bay: Best of 2008

Theatergoing in the San Francisco Bay Area is one of life’s treats. No question about it. If you love theater, this is a wonderland. In this devastating economic climate, may that only hold true for the next couple of years.

There is so much good theater here, so many incredible actors, writers, directors and crafts people that an annual Top 10 is often difficult to wrangle. That’s why the Top 10 is followed by a list of other shows that should, by all rights, also be included in the Top 10, but numbers being the chronological beasts that they are, dictate on show per number (still, I cheated with No. 6 and included two shows by one playwright).

1. TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori – My favorite show of the year peeled yet another layer of this incredible musical to reveal a work of sheer genius. Director Robert Kelly and his extraordinary leading lady, C. Kelly Wright, offered some of their best work ever, and that’s saying something.

2. California Shakespeare Theater’s Pericles – Adapted and directed by Joel Sass, this incredibly colorful telling of one of Shakespeare’s oddest tales was entrancing and memorable, especially on a warm summer night in the gorgeous Bruns Amphitheatre in Ordina.

3. Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts’ Angry Black White Boy adapted by Dan Wolf from Adam Mansbach’s novel – The year’s most exciting new work was a bold act of contemporary theatricality, blending hip-hop, spoken word, drama and movement into a seamless blend directed by Sean San Jose. Good news for anyone who missed it – the show returns to Intersection Jan. 29-Feb. 15.

4. SF Playhouse’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party by Aaron Loeb – We had to wait all year for a world-premiere play that entertained as much as it titillated and thrilled. Funny, serious and wacky, this Chris Smith-directed musing on a divided America proved to be as smart as it is imaginative.

5. Traveling Jewish Theater and Thick Description’s Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain by David Greenspan — Weird and wild barely begins to describe this play about a gay son who essentially becomes his dead mother. Outstanding, memory-searing performances came from Liam Vincent and Deb Fink in Tony Kelly’s production.

6. SF Playhouse’s Shining City and Marin Theatre Company’s The Seafarer, both by Conor McPherson – Ireland’s top-tier playwright received two outstanding productions by local theaters, each demonstrated his compassionate (and slightly warped) humanity.

7. Shotgun Players and Banana, Bag & Bodice’s Beowulf – This rock musical take on one of college lit’s greatest hits was one of the year’s most delightful surprises. Composer Dave Malloy and writer Jason Craig breathed new life into an Old English classic. This one comes back for one performance only, Jan. 8, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, before heading out to conquer New York.

8. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s TRAGEDY: a tragedy by Will Eno – Audiences were sharply divided over this existential dark night of the soul as filtered through a TV news team. I loved its Beckettian aridness and humor, and Les Waters’ production was anchored by an outstanding cast.

9. Magic Theatre’s Octopus by Steve Yockey – Water poured and unease flowed in director by Kate Warner’s splashy production of a challenging, unnerving play in which death and disease ooze into every nook and cranny.

10. American Conservatory Theater’s Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard – ACT often does its best work with Stoppard, and this was on exception. Director Carey Perloff revealed the rich rewards of this dense, emotional work.

And now a few other greats in no particular order: Theatre Rhinoceros’ Ishi: The Last of the Yahi by John Fisher; Cal Shakes’ An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde; Magic Theatre’s Evie’s Waltz by Carter W. Lewis; SF Playhouse’s Bug by Tracy Letts; Word for Word’s Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin; Aurora Theatre Company’s The Busy World Is Hushed by Keith Bunin; ACT’s The Quality of Life by Jane Anderson; Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman; Aurora Theatre Company’s The Best Man by Gore Vidal.

It was quite a year for excellent solo shows as well. Here are some highlights: Nilaja Sun’s No Child… at Berkeley Rep; Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul at Thick Description; Roger Rees’ What You Will at ACT; Ann Randolph’s Squeeze Box at The Marsh; Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking at Berkeley Rep; Judy Gold’s 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother at the Marines Memorial Theatre; Billy Connolly live at the Post Street Theatre; Mark Nadler’s Russian on the Side at the Marines.

And, it has to be said, not everything is genius. Here are shows that lingered less than fondly in memory: Darren Romeo’s The Voice of Magic at the Post Street Theatre; Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector at ACT; Cybill Shepherd in Bobby Goldman’s Curvy Widow at the Post Street Theatre; Edna O’Brien’s Tir na nOg (Land of Youth) at the Magic Theatre.

Holidays on edge: Alternatives to `Carol’

“God bless us, everyone!” doesn’t warm the cockles of every holiday heart.

Traditional holiday theatrical fare is great, but sometimes you need an alternative. Thankfully, here in the Bay Area, we can do holiday entertainment with edge. Here’s a handy guide to some Carol alternatives (not that there’s anything wrong with A Christmas Carol, mind you – find a Carol guide here).

The Rhino Christmas PantoTheatre Rhinoceros artistic director John Fisher, the man who brought us Medea: The Musical, joins with composer James Dudek , to create a big musical comedy about a disgruntled young man who is show the meaning of Christmas by a fairy – a real fairy – who takes him from the manger in Bethlehem to a gay bar in Oakland. Continues through Dec. 21 at Theatre Rhino, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$40. Call 415-861-5079 or visit
Pictured at right, clockwise from top: Jordan L. Moore as Carol Channing, Nicholas Yenson as Jesus Christ, Jean Franco Pilas as An Early Christian, Aaron Martinsen as Aaron, Norman Muñoz as Constantine the Great, Erin Tate Maxon as Slumber Girl, and Rachel L. Jacobs as The Christmas Fairy in The Rhino Christmas Panto, written and directed by John Fisher, with music and lyrics by James Dudek. Photo by Kent Taylor.

The Eight: Reindeer Monologues – Playwright Jeff Goode delves into what happens at the North Pole the other 364 days of the year. It just so happens that one of Santa’s eight tiny reindeer has accused the old man of sexual harassment. Each of the hooved creates gets a chance to speak in this adults-only show. Continues through Dec. 20 at EXIT Stage Left, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco. Tickets are $28. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

Wrapping Paper Caper – Here’s an alternative for the entire family. And this one just happens to be my favorite of the annual holiday shows in the Bay Area. Puppeteer Liebe Wetzel, working with director Jeff Raz and her Lunatique Fantastique puppeteers, does amazing things with found objects such as wrapping paper, wrapping paper tubes, tinsel garlands and rain coats. Imaginative and captivating, this is a show you really should see if you haven’t. Continues through Jan. 4 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

David Hirata & Friends in Magic Holiday – Here’s another Marsh tradition, and it’s also a great one for the entire family. Juggling, magic, comedy – it’s all here, and it’s all delightful. Continues through Dec. 29 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

Black Nativity – One of the most enduring and rewarding of the annual holiday shows is this Lorraine Hansberry Theatre tradition inspired by Langston Hughes’Black Nativity, a gospel re-telling of the Christmas story. Gospel great Arvis Strickling-Jones headlines this music- and dance-filled spectacle. Performs Dec. 11-28 at the PG&E Auditorium, 77 Beale St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$36. Call 415-474-8800 or visit

Christmas Crap-ArrayThe Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco presents its second annual bit of holiday irreverence, which features soloists and ensembles performing raunchy, hilarious skits and new songs sure to appeal to grinches and Scrooges as well as naughty boys and girls looking forward to receiving a Christmas Eve spanking from a burly, bearded guy. Three performances only: Dec. 18, 19 and 20 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$40. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

Carlo D’Amore lands a `Parole’ hearing

A familiar face is back among us.

Carlo D’Amore got his start in the acting world more than a decade ago in productions with some prominent Bay Area theaters: Theatre Rhinoceros’ Twelfth Night, the Magic Theatre’s A Park in Our House and Dog Opera and several San Francisco Shakespeare Festival touring park productions.

Then, with “ants in his pants,” as he puts it, he headed off to New York in 1996 to try life in a bigger pond, only to bottom out before attaining a measured degree of success.

“It was a lot harder than I suspected,” says D’Amore (at right, photos by Rudy Meyers). “But I’ve done pretty well and been lucky enough to work on Broadway a couple of times. For a 5’6″ white Latino who doesn’t sing, that’s a huge accomplishment.”

While living in New York, D’Amore’s mother, a colorful character to say the least who had lived her life as a flamboyant con artist, had a stroke and needed the care and attention of her son.

Born in Peru to an Italian father and a Peruvian mother, D’Amore emigrated to the U.S. and lived in the South Bay. That’s where he came into contact with acting, but he attributes his acting gene to his mother.

“She always used to say that had she been an actress, she would have been amazing,” D’Amore says. “But she was an actress because she was constantly putting on personas in her scamming. She was basically performing, making you think what she wanted you to think. She was fearless in her sort of attack. I learned from her how to do that. Even when I started studying at American Conservatory Theater or with Jean Shelton, I was always a natural.”

While taking care of his ailing mother in New York, D’Amore found himself having to grow up a little bit and become a caretaker. His mother, true to her history, “pulled some shenanigans,” as D’Amore puts it.

“After 30 years of going through these experiences, it came home to me,” he says. “I went ballistic. I came close to…I don’t know.”

He came more than close to pouring his heart out in what would become No Parole, an autobiographical one-man show, the basis of which is this: “Family is a life sentence.”

“I locked myself in for two weeks and wrote 80 pages, single spaced,” D’Amore recalls. “I was pouring these rants, these huge rants, onto the page.”

From that, he was able to perform a chunk of the show in its early stages at the Tribeca Theater Festival. “I was told they were looking for people of color, and I thought, `Hey, I’m colorful!” D’Amore says. “I did it and got some awesome feedback. From there I wanted to go more in depth with it. I worked with a director, Joe Megel, and he told me that with this kind of work, there’s no place to hide. I was talking about my mother, but part of me was still trying to protect her.”

Years before, at Theatre Rhino, D’Amore had performed in the one-man show Men on the Verge and savored the experience of being an actor alone on stage. “I wanted to have that experience again,” he says. “And it turns out the best story I had to tell was my life story and growing up with my mom.”

A producer friend in San Francisco convinced D’Amore to bring his show here, where it ran for several weeks last year at the SF Playhouse. That version of the show was heavy and dark, according to D’Amore.

“My sense of humor is very dark,” he says. “Things I thought were funny just horrified people. People were moved by it, but they weren’t laughing as much as I wanted them to. Something was still not clicking.”

Further work on the show at the Lark Play Development Center in New York and then work with director Margaret Perry have taken the show, D’Amore says, to a “totally different place.” When No Parole opens tonight (Thursday, Nov. 13) at The Marsh, where it runs through Dec. 13, audiences will see a show that is, according to its creator, at least 30 percent new material.

“I think I’m done writing the play,” says D’Amore, who will soon be 40. “It took three years, but it’s finished, and I’m thrilled with where it is.”

D’Amore’s mother didn’t see him on stage for a long time, but not too long before she died, she did get to see him in an early version of No Parole, in which he plays her as a vibrant young woman and as a 60-year-old debilitated by a stroke.

“She saw me do this in 2005 in the first version of the show,” D’Amore says. “It was pretty interesting to have her see that. I think it must have been difficult for her to watch. Part of her loved the fact that she was being immortalized. She’s a huge personality, and along with that comes quite a bit of ego, which is why I think she was able to do all the things she did. She was unstoppable.”

Coming back to San Francisco, D’Amore says, always feels like coming home. He has fond memories of working at the Magic and says that Danny Scheie, who directed him in Theatre Rhino’s all-male Twelfth Night set on a submarine, is “probably the best director I’ve ever worked with. Nobody else is quite as creative or fun.”

There’s a second solo show in the works, Feet First, and though it’s based on his mother’s brother, this is quite a different piece, and at no time in the show does D’Amore play himself.

“My uncle died in San Quentin chained to a hospital bed. It’s a tragic story,” D’Amore says. “The title comes from Incan lore: if you’re born feet first, and you make that journey, you’ll be blessed to waltz through life. It’s basically about a man looking at his life from prison and attempting to pass a positive image on to his son.”

D’Amore pauses and admits that talking about the show gives him “full-body goose pimples.”

“I’m thrilled not to be a one-trick pony writer.”


No Parole continues through Dec. 13 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

Review: `His Heart Belongs to Me’

Matt Weimer plays Dan, a gay man in the Bible Belt, who is forbidden from seeing his children after the death of his longtime partner in Jerry Metzker’s drama His Heart Belongs to Me. Photo by Grooviness Productions.


Hot-button issues pulse through engaging `Heart’

Jerry Metzker’sHis Heart Belongs to Me does what does something that theater doesn’t do enough: it tackles current issues from a telling vantage point.

Too often, issue plays are dismissed as “just another made-for-cable, issue-of-the-week potboiler.” And that’s too bad because straightforward dramas with serious issues at their core have a place on stage. The live, interactive quality of theater engages people on a much more vital intellectual or emotional level than film ever could, and that’s why we need more of these so-called potboilers.

Metzker’s drama, now in the Theatre Rhinoceros’ basement studio, takes us outside the bubble of the Bay Area and into the Bible Belt, where living life as an out gay man and raising a family prove to be a tricky balancing act.

The tragedy gets piled pretty high as Dan (Matt Weimer) loses his Charlie, his firefighter partner of 14 years, and then systematically sees his two children basically taken away from him by their born-again mother (Susan Donnelly) and Charlie’s in-denial mother (Tamar Cohn). Charlie’s will is contested, and at the funeral, the preacher, who had never met Charlie, essentially denounces the dead hero for his sin of loving a man.

Helpless and hopeless, Dan unleashes a lengthy legal tangle, but at what emotional cost to himself and his young children, whom he’s forbidden from seeing? He tussles with Charlie’s snarky sister (Danielle Perata, right, with Cohn) and watches his Methodist pastor (Chrys-Anthony Booker) get shuffled out of town for supporting Dan, which fellow parishioners see as supporting a gay rights agenda.

Playwright Metzker, working with director Maureen Studer, trains his focus on the personal more than the political as we see Dan pulled ever deeper into an emotional downward spiral. His only support comes from his sister (Amanda J. Lee) and his somewhat flaky best friend (Norman Muñoz), both of whom have their own problems.

Aside from some choppiness in the scene structure and some character name confusion, Metzker’s play is provocative, involving and ultimately quite moving. The playwright has a clear point of view, but he doesn’t demonize his opponents. He imbues the people who want to deny Dan’s marriage and his parenthood with humanity, as impossible as that sounds.

The cast helps keep these people dimensional and, whenever they’re able, likeable. Weimer’s superb lead performance as Dan grounds the play and gives us a man we care about. We feel the weight of his problems and tense up at his inability to gain traction in his cause. How do you follow the arcane rules to rescue your children when the rules shut you out entirely?

That’s the big question, and there’s no easy answer, though Metzker refuses to leave his characters wallowing in misery. There’s a spark of hope, though it’s a dim light in a gloomy battle.

Even without the “No on 8” signs in the lobby or the appeal to vote against the constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in California, the politics of Metzker’s play come through loud and clear. This is a country where some citizens matter more than others, and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

However these stories are told, whether they’re movies of the week or effectively written and produced pieces of agitprop pieces of theater, they are necessary pieces of the larger conversation.

His Heart Belongs to Me continues through Nov. 8 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $12. Call 415-861-5079or visit for information.

Dolly Days! Carol Channing returns to San Francisco

SAD NEWS! After I posted the article below, I received a press release stating that for health reasons, Carol Channing has had to cancel her San Francisco performances this week. This is the first time she’s ever had to cancel a performance.

“It’s a painful and temporary set back,” Channing said in a statement. “This week was to be the launch of the statewide campaign to bring back the teaching of the arts in the public schools and that I can’t be there hurts almost as bad as my injury. I promise to return to San Francisco in the future. There is no better city to help us begin raising awareness with regard to the necessity for Arts programs in education.”

“On behalf of everyone at the Museum of Performance & Design, we wish Miss Channing a healthy and speedy recovery,” said David Humphrey, Director of the Museum of Performance & Design. “We look forward to Carol visiting the Museum in the near future to see the incredible exhibit celebrating her life and work as one of America’s great Broadway treasures.”

The museum is still going ahead with the opening of its Channing exhibit.

Refunds for the concert are available by calling City Box Office at (415) 392-4400.

The Theatre Rhinoceros benefit will now be hosted by Darryl Stephens (Noah from Logo Channel’s “Noah’s Arc” and the up-coming feature film “Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom” — in theaters Oct. 24th).

Now here’s the article…

Stopping Carol Channing from working would be as impossible as preventing Dolly Levi from sashaying down the steps of the Harmonia Gardens.

At 87, Channing, the winner of three Tony Awards and a legend for her more than 5,000 performances in the title role of the musical Hello, Dolly! is still hard at work. She and her husband, childhood sweetheart Harry Kullijian (Channing’s fourth husband), have created the Dr. Carol Channing & Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving arts education in California schools.

“Art is so important for students. It fertilizes their brains,” says Channing in that unmistakable, oft-imitated voice. We’ve been going all around the state lecturing at high schools and universities about the importance of the arts. But we hear from the teachers about how programs get cut.”

Channing recalls hearing from a kindergarten teacher who said that she sees the children come into the classroom, eager to learn, make new friends and discover wonderful things.

“Then,” Channing says, “without arts programs, the teachers watch the students’ little brains disintegrate. The teachers got tears in their eyes telling me about this in San Diego. These teachers watch as the students lose interest slowly, and by the time they’re in high school, they’re into all kinds of trouble.”

So Channing and Kullijian are doing what they can to remedy what they see as a dire situation if arts remain out of touch for young people. On Thursday, Sept. 25, Channing headlines in Hello, Carol! A Celebration of Carol Channing at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. The gala concert will feature special guest Carole Cook and the California Pops Orchestra.

The evening will serve as a formal launch of a major fundraising effort for Channing and Kullijian’s foundation and its public awareness campaign about the arts in education.

“The goal is not to create artists, necessarily,” Kullijian adds. “The focal point of this project is to bring arts back into the curriculum in California. We need to think of younger people with a more holistic attitude. They’re growing up in a tough world, and the competition is keen. We need a lot of people intelligent people who also have art and culture. We need to upgrade our educational system to compete in the world. It’s going to get tougher. Carol knows this – she’s paid the price, so to speak, to be the messenger. She does love young people and the arts, and she has these broad arms that encompass so many and so much.”

While she’s back in her hometown this week, Channing will also be stopping by Theatre Rhinoceros to make an appearance at their gala benefit at the Levende Lounge on Tuesday, Sept. 23. She’ll judge a Carol Channing lookalike contest (finalists were selected during “Project Channing: America’s Next Top (Drag) Carol!” at the Truck Bar), and the audience will enjoy food, cocktails, a silent auction and a performance from the original cast of Up Jumped SpringtimeColeman Domingo, Da’Mon Vann and Brian Yates-Sharber.

As if two Channing events weren’t enough, there’s a third, and it’s doozy: the Museum of Performance & Design has mounted the first major retrospective exhibition ever mounted on the life of Channing. The exhibit, which includes the original red Hello, Dolly! dress, among many other articles from Channing’s personal collection, opens Friday, Sept. 26 and continues through March 14.

Though she’s delighted by all the attention, Channing always brings the conversation back to the arts and how important they were to her as a young person and how she’ll do everything she can to increase students’ exposure to and involvement in the arts.

“You hear stories about a father not wanting his son to be a dancer or a painter because it’s not practical and he’ll starve to death,” Channing says. “The child goes to university and the father says take a business course and focus on reading, writing and ‘rithmetic so you can support your family. But those aren’t the students getting the jobs. The ones who get the jobs are the ones exposed to the arts. Once you’re exposed to the arts, the whole world looks like art. Harry and I are witnesses to that.”


  • Tickets for the kick-off concert for Hello, Carol! A Celebration of Carol Channing are $30-$125. The show is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25 at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Call 415-392-4400 or visit
  • The exhibit Hello, Carol! A Celebration of Carol Channing runs from Friday, Sept. 26 through March 14 at the Museum of Performance & Design, 401 Van Ness Ave., fourth floor, San Francisco. Admission is free. Visit for information.
  • Theatre Rhinoceros’ gala benefit starring Carol Channing is at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 23 at the Levende Lounge, 1701 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $100. Call 415-861-5079 or visit for information.

Now here’s some wildness: Channing performing “That’s How Young I Feel” (from Mame) on “The Dean Martin Show” with Tommy Tune and the dancing ensemble from Broadway’s Seesaw.

Thar she blows! Matthew Martin dresses up `Moby Dick!’

[PLEASE NOTE: Moby Dick! The Musical has been extended through Oct. 19]

You can bet that Matthew Martin has the greatest gams on the Pequod.

Martin, the San Francisco drag superstar, is having a whale of a time heading the cast of Theatre Rhinoceros’ season-opening Moby Dick! The Musical.

He’s playing Headmistress Hymen, whose school, St. Godley’s Academy for Young Ladies, is about to go bankrupt. So, in true musical theater fashion (think Nunsense), she and her girls stage a musical version of Melville’s Moby Dick to raise some much needed funds. Headmistress, of course, takes on the role of Capt. Ahab.

“I’m playing Headmistress Hymen as a blend of Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Glynis Johns,” Martin says over coffee and cigarettes in the Hayes Valley Victorian he shares with roommate (and co-star) Mike Finn. “And as Ahab, I’m drawing on Gregory Peck in the John Houston movie.”

Lest you think Martin is exercising his heavy-duty thespian muscles, he emphasizes that Moby Dick! is a comedy in the largest sense.

“It’s Shtickville, U.S.A.,” he says. “There are spit takes and everything. I like it. I’m not above a lowbrow joke. It’s one dick joke after another.”

Created in the early ’90s by Brits Robert Longden, Martin Koch and Hereward Kaye, Moby Dick! was noticed by super-producer Cameron Mackintosh, who booked it into a new studio theater in Oxford, where it became a cult hit. Against the advice of his colleagues, Mackintosh transferred the show to London, where the whale went belly up.

At Theatre Rhino, Moby Dick! is back in a more intimate space and directed by Rhino artistic director John Fisher, who has worked with Martin before in his plays Special Forces and Schonberg among them.

“Working with John is a mutual admiration society,” Martin says. “He can be an Otto Preminger of sorts. He won’t let you go on stage if you’re not ready. His tremendous love and care of a project can make him tough.”

As Headmistress/Ahab, Martin is in a demanding role – he says he doesn’t remember having to sing this much for a role – but he’s been in demanding roles before. He’s famous for taking the Bette Davis roles in stage adaptations of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and All About Eve.

In fact, he and fellow drag diva Varla Jean Merman (across the street from Rhino starring in Jungle Red at the Victoria) have plans to make a movie version of the drag Baby Jane.

Martin’s glamorous life as a grand dame of the Bay Area stage is balanced by his day job in a law firm – he’s a “legal sexy-tary,” as he puts it – a job he’s had for more than a decade and allows him the flexibility to pursue his show-biz career.

In recent years he (with roommate Finn) adapted the horrible Joan Crawford B-movie horror flick Trog for the stage. The show was so successful here they took it on the road to Los Angeles.

Last year, Martin and Finn opened up their home and turned the front parlor into a mini-theater (seating 70) and performed live episodes of “The Golden Girls” with an all-male cast. Martin played the lusty Blanche Devereaux.

He also went on tour with several Trannyshack performers including Heklina – Martin describes it as akin to a USO Tour – with stops as disparate as London and Santa Fe.

“In Santa Fe we performed at a lesbian pizza parlor,” he recalls. “They were so hungry for entertainment! The dressing room was upstairs over the pizza ovens, and the partition for the dressing room was made of Saran Wrap.”

Touring through Martin’s home – a shadowy Victorian wonderland of dark, rich colors crowded with antiques – the performer mentions some of his triumphs on stage at the Castro Theatre where he impersonated some great Hollywood ladies, who just happened to be in attendance, Jane Russell and Ann Miller among them. Most recently he performed as Mitzi Gaynor for Mitzi Gaynor. She autographed an album cover for him: “To Matthew – You’re the best!” In the photo of the two together, the resemblance is startling.

The world of drag, Martin says, has become a whole lot less shocking than it used to be and become much more a part of the mainstream.

“I’ve never really considered what I do to be doing drag,” Martin says. “To me it’s about playing a character, whether it’s Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland or whoever. It’s not about genitalia, it’s about character.”

“Moby Dick! The Musical” continues an extended run through Oct. 19 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$40. Call 415-861-5079 or visit

Here’s Martin during his Mitzi Gaynor gig at the Castro Theatre earlier this year:

Midsummer stages heat up

David Kahawaii (left) is JoJo and Carl Danielsen is The Cat in the Hat in the Woodminster Musicals production of Seussical the Musical.

Summer used to be a dead time in Bay Area theater. No longer. Here are some hot shows to check out this weekend and in the weeks to come.

Terrence McNally, the man who wrote Master Class and Love! Valour! Compassion! wrote this pair of one-acts in the early ‘70s and set them in warring rest homes to examine how bucking the status quo can often be the best revenge. Square MaMa resurrects the one-acts for your summer viewing.
– Terrence McNally’s Bad Habits, through Aug. 30 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th ST., San Francisco (one block from 16th Street BART station).

One of Canada’s most acclaimed performance art duos,, Stephen Lawson and Aaron Pollard, bring their unique repertoire of “epic multimedia performance” to the States. Described as an “inimitable blend of burlesque, video projections, opera, show tunes and old films,” the boys will present Puree and Zona., through Aug. 31 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $22-$34. 415-861-8972;

Every summer, Thunderbird Theatre premieres something funny. This year we get a show with a tag line: “Jane Austen Sucks (blood).” Yes, Jane Austen meets vampires in Pride & Succubus, the creation of Claire Rice.
– Thunderbird Theatre’s Pride & Succubus, through Aug. 23 at New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom St., San Francisco. $17-$25. 415-289-6766;

One of the most intriguing offerings of the summer, Gary Aylesworth’s The Ballad of Edgar Cayce is a “bluegrass operetta” about one of the world’s most famous so-called psychics who attempted to channel spirit voices to answer the great questions of existence such as: was there really an Atlantis? The show is performed by Aylesworth and Peter Newton, who also supply the live music.
– Gary Aylesworth’s The Ballad of Edgar Cayce, through Aug. 30 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 47- Florida St., San Francisco. $15-$20. 415-831-1943;

The characters of Dr. Seuss come to musical life in Seussical the Musical created by the same team that brought Doctorow’s Ragtime to the stage. Kids and adults appreciate the travails of Horton, who hears a Who, Maisy the Duck, who admires her tail and the Cat in the Hat.
Seussical the Musical, through Aug. 17 at Woodminster Amphitheater, Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland. $23-$38. 510-531-9597;

Review: `Ishi: The Last of the Yahi”

Continues an extended run through July 27 at Theatre Rhinoceros

Michael Vega is Ishi and Chris Libby is a settler attempting to cash in on the State of California’s reward of $5 for an Indian’s head in John Fisher’s Ishi: The Last of the Yahi at Theatre Rhinoceros. Photo by Judi Price.

Fisher’s `Ishi’ horrifies, fascinates

It’s been too long since I saw a John Fisher show. Eons ago, I became a fan of Fisher’s through The Joy of Gay Sex and Medea: The Musical, and his wild outdoor production of Titus Andronicus in Yerba Buena Gardens remains one of my favorite evenings of Shakespeare ever.

Fisher is the artistic director of San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros, the longest continuously operating queer theater anywhere, and running a theater has been a great outlet for Fisher to try out his new plays.

The most recent is Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, a “fiction based on fact” account of a local slice of anthropological history. If you know your California lore, you may remember that Ishi (a name given to him by his scientific captors that means “man” in Yahi) was the last member of a tribe of Native American Yahi in the Mill Creek/Oroville area. In 1911, after his tribe had been decimated and his family completely destroyed, he wandered into town fully expecting to be killed.

Instead, he was captured and turned over to University of California anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who studied Ishi until the Native American died of tuberculosis in 1916.

Rather than just tell the story of Ishi, which has been explored in a number of books and movies, Fisher is aiming for something big and harsh and implicating. He wants to remind us, as one character puts it, “as Californians we are living in the wake of genocide.”

The character of Ishi recalls his life in the wilds of California as he and his people became the prey of white hunters aiming to cash in on their elimination. The city of Oroville would pay 50 cents for an Indian scalp, but the big money came from the State of California, which paid $5 for an Indian head.

Fisher, with his customary directorial brio, stages chases through the forests and out-and-out war between Indians and the white settlers all through the Theatre Rhino auditorium. This is a violent story enacted with gusto (though no stage blood is spilled, leaving all of that to our imaginations, which is enough) and horror. We are there for the massacre of families in a cave with nowhere to run. We see a castration, rape, incest, cannibalism and any number of atrocities. In short, we get the point. If we ever thought California was a wild wonderland that welcomed settlers with open arms, we’ll certainly think differently now.

Fisher’s dynamic direction keeps the story moving and pulsing, which is a good thing. This play is three hours and 15 minutes long. That’s too long, of course, and there’s material to trim, especially in the relationship between the Kroeber (Kevin Clarke) and Kroeber’s tubercular wife (Jeanette Harrison). They’re interesting people (he’s an egomaniac, she’s a suffragette), but their doomed love affair takes too much time away from Ishi (a compelling Michael Vega).

There are some elements of Pygmalion here, with Kroeber as Higgins, Ishi as Eliza and Dr. Thomas Waterman (Aaron Martinsen) and Dr. Saxton Pope (Matt Weimer) as versions of Col. Pickering. But instead of the Embassy Ball we get infanticide and massacres.

This is a fascinating story, and Fisher’s Ishi brings up so many issues — the validity of the historical record, the effect of greed and ego on scientific work, the general ignorance and blood lust of the white man — it seems there may be more than one play here. And you leave the theater wanting to know more but feeling wary of any source you might turn to for information.

Ishi: The Last of the Yahi continues through July 27 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-861-5079 or visit