Monday, December 14, 2009

On The Street Where You Live

I once had a friend who was a bartender. To many gay men in San Francisco, that would be a given. But for someone who is a nondrinker, it was a bit of a novelty.

Perhaps I should explain.

From 1973-1978, at the corner of 18th & Hartford Streets (where Moby Dick has been hosting gay men for more than three decades), there was once a funky haven for intellectuals and opera queens. Its beat-up old jukebox played selections from the classical repertoire (Richard Wagner's energetic Ride of the Valkyries was a constant crowd pleaser). On Sunday afternoon, there was often a concert of vocal selections by aspiring singers who were accompanied on the beat-up old piano that stood near the pool table.

Stephen Robins was a transplant from Idaho, a cuddly little gay koala bear who overflowed with love for many things. As one of the Castro's resident bartenders, Steve loved playing host and tour guide to numerous gay men who visited San Francisco. In fact, I used to tease him about only dating men who had arrived in town on an excursion fare (knowing full well that, as soon as they returned home, he would be free to take another wide-eyed tourist under his wing).

In Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta, Patience (1881), Grosvenor declares: "I have loved you with a Florentine fourteenth-century frenzy for full fifteen years!" Steve's enthusiasm for life was equally florid.
  • Steve loved opera.
  • Steve loved good wine.
  • Steve loved good food.
  • Steve loved gay men.
  • Steve especially loved gay men who loved opera, good wine, and good food.
Perhaps more than anything else, Steve loved San Francisco. He had read everything he could find about the city's history, knew an incredible amount of trivia about local architecture, and could not wait to share his passion for San Francisco with anyone who was interested.

In his spare time, Steve had set himself a goal of walking every block of every street in the city that he loved so much. After leaving his job at The Corner Grocery Bar, he moved on to tend bar at The Neon Chicken (where Eureka Restaurant is now located) and at his old hangout, the Twin Peaks Tavern. Like many others before him, when Steve eventually succumbed to AIDS, he left his heart in San Francisco.

Many people treasure the memory of watching the cast of Flower Drum Song perform "Grant Avenue." For gay men, it was a badge of honor to have seen the legendary Charles Pierce impersonate Jeannette MacDonald singing San Francisco as he swung out above the audience in the bar where he was performing.

Charles Pierce as Jeannette MacDonald

Tony Bennett's rendition of I Left My Heart in San Francisco has always captured the fondness people have for the City by the Bay. Here's a lovely video clip of Bennett sharing his signature song with Doris Day, as Kaye Ballard and Bernie Kopell watch.

Steve has probably been dead for more than 20 years, but I'm pretty sure he would be head over heels in love with the Boxcar Theatre's revival of I ♥ SF. Although it is barely an hour in running time, the show still charms residents who grew up here as well as those who arrived from other cities and decided to call San Francisco their home. In the following video clip, co-artistic director Nick A. Olivero explains the appeal of I ♥ SF.

Favorite moments from the show include a Noe Valley native's historical perspective on the changes in the neighborhood, a young man explaining to his Irish mother (who used to live in the Castro) that he's gay, and a Japanese-American who has fled to suburbia trying to convince his stubborn father to leave Japantown and come live with his family. There are stroller wars in Bernal Heights ("Lesbians! Lesbians! Lesbians!"), Laurel Heights "Latte! Latte! Latte!") and Noe Valley ("Yuppies! Yuppies! Yuppies!") as well as a delightful monologue by a man who lives on the part of Lombard Street known as "the crookedest street in the world."

Whether showcasing a trio of aging hippies reading Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl in Italian, Chinese, and English, or relating the tale of a young boy cutting classes to take a trip to San Francisco with his friends from grade school, I ♥ SF is filled with nostalgia and charm. The energetic cast includes company regulars Elinor Bell, Donald Currie, Michelle Ianiro, Sarah Korda, Stephanie RenĂ©e Maysonave, Michael Moerman, and Sarah Savage as well as Boxcar's co-artistic directors: Nick A. Olivero and Peter Matthews.

The Boxcar Players perform in I ♥ SF. (Photo by: Peter Liu)

If you like blackout skits, gentle comedy, or just have a soft spot for San Francisco in your heart, you'll enjoy Boxcar's revival. If recent years have tarnished your love for the city, I ♥ SF will easily remind you why it's so hard to leave.

* * * * * * * * * *
While the streets of San Francisco may be filled with delightful vignettes, the streets of London have often teemed with danger. As far back as 1728, when John Gay wrote The Beggar's Opera, London was seething with financial disparity. Charles Dickens highlighted London's underworld in 1838's Oliver Twist. Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, focuses on a crazed assassin determined to take his vengeance on the privileged class.

In 1928, composer Kurt Weill teamed up with playwright Bertolt Brecht to create The Threepenny Opera as a way of criticizing the evils of capitalism. "Our aim was less to moralize than to observe," insisted Brecht. "We were not in fact speaking in the name of morality, but in that of the victims."

Daniel Duque Estrada sings "The Ballad of Mack The Knife"
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

After the stock market crashed in 1929, Brecht published his Threepenny Novel (based on his play) in which he identified the villains as investment bankers who swindled ordinary citizens. One can easily see how The Threepenny Opera provided inspiration for modern day musicals like 1997's The Life and 2001's Urinetown.

Brecht liked to argue that the true criminals were the businessmen behind the banks, declaring that "The real estate business was no longer what it had been. New investments were scarce and the old properties had suffered terrible depreciation. What's a crowbar compared to a share certificate?"

Although it premiered in Berlin, The Threepenny Opera was set in Queen Victoria's London, where pimps and whores struggled to eke out a living while trying to outwit the police. The two rivals battling over who would control the future of pretty Polly Peachum were a brutally sadistic rapist and murderer named MacHeath (also known as Mack the Knife) and Polly's father, a sleazy entrepreneur who outfitted potential beggars with the costumes and props needed to ply their trade.

Dave Garrett as Mr. Peachum (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

When MacHeath secretly marries Polly (who has only known him for five days), Peachum seeks revenge by trying to get MacHeath hanged. However, MacHeath's old army buddy, Tiger Brown, has become the Chief of Police. As a result, MacHeath usually manages to evade capture. Just when it looks like the executioner's noose will finally tighten around MacHeath's neck, a messenger from the Queen arrives to pardon the murderer and bestow upon him the title of Baron.

Over the years, The Threepenny Opera has been translated into 18 languages and received more than 10,000 performances. Composer Marc Blitzstein translated the piece into English for his famous 1956 off-Broadway production which, during its 2,707-performance run at the Theatre De Lys on Christopher Street, featured Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya, as Jenny; Bea Arthur as Lucy; Ed Asner as Mr. Peachum; Charlotte Rae as Mrs. Peachum; Jerry Stiller as Jake; and, at various times, Jerry Orbach as Smith, the Street Singer, and Mack the Knife.

A new production by Berkeley's Shotgun Players that was conceived by Susannah Martin (using the English translation of the play's dialogue by Robert MacDonald along with a recent translation of the lyrics by Jeremy Sams) updated the action to the 1970s. In the original version of The Threepenny Opera, Brecht included references to a 19th century coronation ceremony. For the Shotgun Players' production, those references were changed to mark the 25th anniversary Jubilee Celebration of England's Queen Elizabeth II in 1977. As Martin explains in her program notes:
"When Patrick Dooley and I began talking about this show a year ago, one of the first questions we asked ourselves was: How do we fully investigate the ideas in this play and invest in them in a way that is relevant to the culture and the world that we live in now? How do we tell the story and embrace all that is odd and contradictory about this play's structure and characters? As Brecht tells us: 'There is no business (however dirty) which, if one man turns it down, another won't jump at. One has to be prepared to stomach anything to make a decent living.' With a bit of distance we see how the past reflects the present.

I dug into both the cultural upheavals of Brecht's Berlin in the 1920s and America during the 1970s. In reaction to the social upheaval after World War I, Brecht and his contemporaries were interested in taking apart assumed structures and hierarchies in order to question and protect the faulty system that had been left behind.

Polly Peachum (Kelsey Venter) and MacHeath (Jeff Wood)
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

People were reacting to similar issues then and now. The revolution of the 1960s felt like a total bust in the 1970s. Lots of good ideas had paved the way to self-indulgence with very little changing for minorities or the poor. The American economy was depressed. People were left picking up the pieces and feeling scammed. The bitterness that people felt about that led the way to a takeover by the right. This scenario is similar to Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Threepenny Opera is rife with broken expectation, contrast, and contradiction. That disjointedness is at the heart of what Brecht termed the alienation effect, but it is also the beating heart that drove the punk movement. The artists of the early punk movement in the 1970s picked up where Brecht left off. They were rebelling against the same failed ideas as the artists of Weimar Germany. Punk was a way of expressing anger and taking back power. The original punk artists, writers, musicians, and poets were Brechtian actors. They turned poverty into glorious art and the passion they felt in ripping something to shreds and putting it back together remains infectious and incredibly inspiring."
Polly Peachum (Kelsey Venter)
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Most productions of The Threepenny Opera start slow and gain momentum as the tension builds between MacHeath and Mr. Peachum. The Shotgun Players' production benefitted immensely from the costume designs by Mark Koss and Nina Ball's grungy unit set. With musical direction by David Moschler (helming a punk band appropriately named "The Weillators"), Susannah Martin's staging kept anger and irony in full force throughout the evening.

The contrast between Jeff Wood's virile MacHeath, Danny Wolohan's inept Tiger Brown, and Dave Garrett's porcine Mr. Peachum (which bore a strange resemblance to Pastor Rick Warren) helped to underscore how much control men had (and often still do) over the women in their lives. Kelsey Venter (Polly), Beth Wilmurt (Jenny), and Rebecca Pingree (Lucy Brown) were dramatically and vocally strong while Bekka Fink (Mrs. Peachum), Andy Alabran (Filch), and Christopher W. White (Jake) helped round out the cast of lowlifes.

Casi Maggio as Dolly (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Finding a way to make a show that was edgy in 1928 relevant to an audience in 2009 (especially after 80+ years of societal change and the globalization of financial markets) is a difficult challenge. Martin and her creative team took the bull by the horns and wrestled it to the ground quite nicely. Aimed to shock its audience, this is the kind of show that needs to be seen by privileged people who have been sleepwalking through life.

The Threepenny Opera is defiantly rude, provocatively crude, and wonderfully lewd. The Shotgun Players' production continues through January 17, 2010 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. You can order tickets here.

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