Delicious theater spiced with fiction

Word for Word Food 1
The cast of Word for Word’s “Food Stories: Pleasure Is Pleasure” includes, from left, Rudy Guerrero, Molly Benson, Soren Oliver, Patricia Silver, Delia MacDougall and Gendell Hernandez. Below: MacDougall and Silver appear in “Enough,” a story by Alice McDermott. Photos by Mark Leialoha

That most scrumptious of Bay Area theater companies, Word for Word, is going the way of the foodie. Yes, Word for Word, the company that turns short fiction into extraordinary theater, is diving headlong into food lit with Food Stories: Pleasure Is Pleasure.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Word for Word’s Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter about the show (directed by Theatre Rhino Artistic Director John Fisher) for the San Francisco Chronicle. Also got to chat with one of the authors featured in the show, T.C. Boyle, whose “Sorry Fugu” is a delightful tale of a New York chef battling his nerves and his confidence during three visits by the harshest food critic in town. I did not get to speak with the other author, Alice McDermott, whose story “Enough” is also featured.

Read the story here.

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Here’s my favorite quote from Boyle:

“In many respects the whole foodie thing is utterly ridiculous,” he says. “It’s about conspicuous consumption. I love to go to a good restaurant and have a good time, but unlike some of my friends, I don’t do it to the exclusion of all else.”

Word for Word’s “Food Stories: Pleasure Is Pleasure” continues through Through Feb. 5 at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$55. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

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Enter Stage Left: SF theater history on film

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Robin Williams is interviewed in a scene from the documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco.

Docuemntary film director/producer Austin Forbord (below right) has created a fascinating documentary about the history of San Francisco theater from the post-World War II days up to the present. The movie has its premeire at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week and will likely see wider release soon after.
Austn Forbord
I interviewed Forbord for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here.

The extraordinary cast of interviewees includes: Robert Woodruff, Chris Hardman, Christina Augello, Robin Williams, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Tony Taccone, David Weissman, Misha Berson, Cynthia Moore, Luis Valdez, Peter Coyote, Herbert Blau, Robert Hurwitt, Jean Schiffman, Anna Halprin, Mort Subotnick, RG Davis, Joan Holden, Oskar Eustis, Richard E.T. White. Larry Eilenberg, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Raz, Kimi Okada, Geoff Hoyle, Joy Carlin, Carey Perloff, Bill Ball, Ed Hastings, Bernard Weiner, Charles “Jimmy” Dean, Robert Ernst, Paul Dresher, John O’Keefe, Leonard Pitt, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pam Tent, John Fisher, Melissa Hillman, Brad Erickson, Philip Gotanda, John LeFan, Dan Hoyle, Stanley Williams and Krissy Keefer.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

You can keep up to date on the movie’s trajectory at the oficial website (click here).

And the Party rages on!

Two on a Party

Sheila Balter and Ryan Tasker are taking Two on a Party on the road to France for the annual Word for Word Tour de France. Photo by Mark Leialoha.


I loved it before and I love it even more now.

About a year ago, Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros joined forces for an evening of three shorts stories by gay writers adapted for the stage (in true Word for Word fashion, not a letter of the original text is changed). That production was a tremendous example of the Word for Word art – taking what’s great on the page and making it even greater on the stage. (Read my original review.)

Continuing the Word for Word tradition of taking shows to the American Libraries in France, Two for the Road, the Tennessee Williams story from the Rhino collaboration, is heading across the seas. But before the tour began, Word for Word decided to leave us with a taste of the show’s brilliance. On Saturday and Sunday at the thrilling new Z Space at Theater Artaud performance venue, we once again got to experience Williams’ sterling prose as he followed the lives and (sort of) loves of Billy and Cora, a gay man and a straight woman trawling the Eastern Seaboard for men and booze.

Director John Fisher’s ingenious production is, if anything, even sharper than it was a year ago, and the characters seem more deeply felt and poignant. In many ways, this is a tale as debauched as any tale ever was with its constant stream of sailors and simulated sex and rough trade and martinis from a Thermos. But Williams is far too skilled a writer to let this story be lurid or sensational. Billy and Cora are dimensional human beings, and as such, their interconnected stories are tender and sweet – even full of kindness.

Most of the original cast returns, which is a great thing. Ryan Tasker is note perfect as Billy, the Williams-esque writer who doesn’t always make wise choices in men. Most of those men are played by Brendan Godfrey, who is convincing as a nellie hotel clerk or a brooding motorcycle man. New to the cast is Jeri Lynn Cohen, who trills “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and makes a convincing barfly and sailor.

Sheila Balter was in the original cast but in the ensemble role now filled by Cohen. Balter is now Cora (originally played by the marvelous JoAnne Winter), and she makes the role her own. There’s an abundance of blousy, boozy warmth in Balter’s performance, and she and Tasker have sparkling chemistry.

So many moments resonate in this 70-minute story, but for me, this time out, I’ll always remember the four cast members clutching one another as Williams talks about why people are drawn to bars and to tricks – if just to be briefly connected and momentarily not alone. The words are simple but the image, which begins as sort of an orgiastic joke, becomes charged with power.

Audiences in France are in for a treat, but then again, this is Word for Word – they’ve been supplying France with flashes of genius for more than a decade now.

The other big news of the evening was that in the fall, Word for Word’s next production will be several chapters from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge. If you’ve read that particular book – sort of a novel in short stories – you know how exciting that is. The only problem for me would be how to choose one story over another.

For information about this and about Word for Word’s annual benefit dinner (featuring a performance from Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate followed by a feast inspired by that book), visit



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

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

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:

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