How can I best describe the adults-only, non-PC, musical extravaganza “Pearls Over Shanghai?” Take our local, super-talented Grand Guignol theater company The Thrillpeddlers and mate them with the legendary drag troupe The Cockettes — it’s as if Heklina birthed Rosemary’s Baby. It’s also the most entertaining live performance you may ever see, complete with horror, murder, BDSM, nudity, pure period glamour and musical numbers that either pay homage or defile the corpse of Busby Berkeley, depending on how you squint your eyes and tilt your head.
So far, every gorgeously, garishly melodramatic show San Francisco’s Thrillpeddlers has produced makes typical theater look like child’s play. Not the horror movie “Child’s Play,” yet not unlike the horror movie with the Thrillpeddlers’ dark humor, taste for violent storylines, extravagant costumes and makeup, occasional gore and frequent sex. Top it off with San Francisco style plus outstanding talent, suddenly Beach Blanket Babylon resembles Aunt Helga’s most mothbally old, tired wig. Anything else is simply for tourists.
How else would you throw a 40th birthday bash for a twisted troupe like The Cockettes? The Thrillpeddlers polish the “Pearls.”
Performed by The Cockettes, I knew that “Pearls Over Shanghai” would be unforgettable, and lo, I cannot scrub my brain clean of the debauchery, nor can I get Michael Soldier’s fabulous turn as a murderous, singing (and well-hung) pimp out of my head. Not that I ever want to.
The Cockettes are more than just part of drag history’s great fabric. Anyone remember “Journey to the Center of Uranus?” No matter, because like Carol Ann warned us about bitchy ghosts with their panties in a bunch during the film “Poltergeist” — they’re ba-ack…. Founded in the late 1960s in North Beach, they’re notorious for performing raunchy parodies of show tunes, and the subject of at least one documentary, possibly a few obsessions, and at least one misdemeanor (yet no convictions I know of.) John Waters aptly called The Cockettes “Hippie acid-freak drag queens. … You couldn’t tell if it was men or women. It was complete sexual anarchy. Which is always a good thing.” Waters’ main starlet Divine was a member of The Cockettes for a stint, and performed a song called “The Crab At The Center of Uranus.”
But I digress. To experience a Thrillpeddlers show is nearly indescribable and yet I can’t recommend it enough. If you’re over 18, that is. Few images from the very psychedelic “Pearls Over Shanghai” are work safe enough to show on the fine pages of SFGate, though you can see a small taste above. By popular demand “Pearls” has had its run extended through November 22. If themes revolving around thugs and pimps in olden China, spiced up with money-grubbing prostitutes and “innocent” “young” “girls” being sold into sexual slavery make a musical sound fun, think about this description as only the framework for a night of eye-popping entertainment.
Simultaneously, The Thrillpeddlers have released upon audiences their horrifying and sex-drenched Shocktoberfest 2009 production, “The Torture Garden.” Since we won’t be having a Halloween party in the Castro, and the city seems like it’s going to be as quiet as an old drag queen’s fart, “The Torture Garden” is the event of the season.
Sure, you could go hang with all the bridge-and-tunnel suckers dressed in their finest “sexy costume in a bag” from the Halloween Stuporstore, gyrating until they barf their GHB-laced fruit punch all over the Exotic Erotic dance floor. With your classiest friends Danny Bonaduce and Tila Tequila. Or you could rent lesbian vampire films in quiet dignity. Or you could just leave a slew of hateful comments for me below and then masturbate into a sock alone while you cry. But you’re really better off getting your mind blown, your senses overloaded, and your date simultaneously terrified and horny by going to see “The Torture Garden.”
In what is their tenth pageant of terror and lust, The Thrillpeddlers “Torture Garden” presents two different one-act plays in the wonderful shock horror genre, whose signature style is so over the top it either makes you laugh or sit in a constant state of disbelief that anyone would really “go there.” They go there. They take you with them.
The first play in “Torture Garden” takes place in an old New Orleans whorehouse, and features all manner of unsavory characters. Called “The Phantom Limb,” it centers around an evil madam whose skillset is all about encouraging her thieving working girls while pushing snake-oil Voodoo cures on the joint’s Johns, who are Civil War vets. Sure to feature plenty of sex, hot actors, and gallons of stage blood, “The Phantom Limb” promises to make you forget all about that time you went to ExErotic and saw that guy in the Jack in the Box outfit making the most of the name “Jack.” Or not. Regardless, there’s no need to torture yourself like that when “Phantom Limb” doesn’t take away the pain, but replaces it with a wrongness that is much more entertaining.
The intermission for Thrillpeddler shows is always…interesting. Encouraging audience participation, a character or two from the previous play interacts with viewers and the adventurous are coaxed onstage for a spanking good time. When I saw “Pearls Over Shanghai” it was literal; a stunning dominatrix got no fewer than three different laughing, lovely ladies onstage for a fantastically timed dance-and-smack with her riding crop to the live accompaniment of a piano player. For Shocktoberfest 2009’s intermission, attendees can amaze their friends and loved ones by volunteering to submit to decapitation a la a full-sized replica of an 18th century guillotine. I’m sure the saucy actors then ask where they’re headed off to.
In the second act of Shocktoberfest 2009, an English translation of the 1922 French play “Le Jardine des Supplices” tells a story about a passenger ship trip on the open seas, of course gone horribly wrong, possibly due for the most part to the seriously corrupt, depraved and morbidly-obsessed characters on board. Maybe everyone’s just cranky because at that time there was still no cure for the clap. At any rate, it’s a “three-hour tour” that lives up to the Grand Guignol style, leading everyone to the Torture Garden (literally, for certain characters) and plunges the theater into hysterical darkness for the Hypnodrome’s trademark “lights out” shocking entertainment. (When I saw “Pearls” from my Shock Box seat, I screamed at least three times when darkness fell. I wasn’t the only one. You’ll have to go see — and feel — for yourself why I had such a shriekishly great time.)
So leave your political correctness and uptight morals at home this Halloween, get the kids to a sitter and create an alibi for the cops; sex-soaked Shocktoberfest 2009 is on. Don’t miss it.