By Lynn Ruth Miller for For All Events ::
In her wonderful and fascinating description of her life as a Cockette, MIDNIGHT AT THE PALACE, Pam Tent says, “Although PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI had long been germinating in the fertile mind of Link Martin, it was extremely fortuitous when the real Peking Opera played the stage at the Palace…..With this play, Link parted the bamboo curtain, his politics swept aside by his love of the mystery and intrigue of the Orient….His exotic singing sailors and witty whores, handmaidens and henchmen all took their places in the streets beside Asian aristocrats and gangland czars. The music was clever. Inspired by his love of the culture, he gave the stage as much eye candy as a Fabergé egg with high-cardboard décor loaded with vibrant images of pagodas and Chinese street-life.
“The Cockettes all shared a sense of the absurd – our shows were never known for historical accuracy. We thrived on mixing times, cultures and drag – as well as sexual perceptions – to concoct plots that defied traditions and classification. Nothing was sacred. PEARLS was a prime example.”
It is this very sense of extravagant absurdity and camp interpretation that fascinated Russell Blackwood, director of the new, revised and updated version of this wonderfully outrageous Cockette show. “Within three months of reading Pam Tent’s “MIDNIGHT AT THE PALACE: MY LIFE AS A FABULOUS COCKETTE,” I had a full on Cockette reunion at The Hypnodrome,” he said. “From there, we went to work with Fayette Hauser on Thrillpeddlers’ first Theatre of The Ridiculous Revival (Summer ’08) which led to our being asked to mount a staged concert version of PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI for New York’s HOWL Festival. It was clear then that Thrillpeddlers and The Cockettes were a good fit. Once we’d begun work on PEARLS then, there was no turning back. It burned in us. The whole essence of the piece is about thrift and skill and keeping a company that works to the very limits of their resources, talents, and joy.”
The result of this collaboration is presented through January 23, 2010 at the intimate and all too cozy Hypnodrome Theatre at 375 Tenth Street between Bryant and Division in San Francisco. This revised version of the timeless Cockettes Musical is based on the book and lyrics originally composed by Link Martin with unforgettable music by Scrumbly Koldewyn. If you have never experienced Koldewyn’s innovative and charming musical interpretations, you owe it to yourself to see this production. He is cast as Ilka, and adds his own magic touch to music that is always timeless in its appeal. Although he is not always at every performance, his spirit is very much a guiding force in its charm and infectious success.
As is Russell Blackwood, the colorful, shocking Mother Fu who sings, poses and tap dances his way through the production he adopted as his own and directed with his special and unique sense of the absurd. This version of PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI is politically incorrect in every way and far more sexually explicit than the original. The whores, Lotus Dancers, Chinese Angels and Handmaidens (all played by the same three talented performers, Kegel Kater, L. Ron Hubby (sporting a lovely goatee) and Linda Wang) are uncontained and choice. This is not a production for innocent children or prurient adults. It is filled with wiggling body parts and positions usually reserved for nighttime endeavors behind closed doors. But no gyration, no insinuation descends to the salacious. Every musical number, no matter how lewd or how uncensored, is too delightful to shock, too amusing to offend. The group numbers are powerful and delicious cupcakes of song and dance, that force you to tap your feet and clap your hands to their compelling rhythms. You would have to be deaf and mute not to laugh at the improbable lyrics that even the television censors of today would forbid. Every time Cockette Rumi Missabu (in his original role of Madame Gin Sing) takes to the stage, you get a sense of the flair and bravado that made every Cockette production a must-see experience for those lucky enough to be part of the San Francisco scene in the late sixties. “The Cockettes grew up together in the golden era of psychedelic euphoria where anything was possible,” says Pam Tent in her not-to-be missed book. “To put the matter simply: We believed we could change the world. It was an incredible journey.”
Russell Blackwood has captured just enough of that euphoric idealism and an abundance of that glitz in his present production of PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI. This was a low budget production that is as lush as and even more extravagant than any you will see on a full blown professional stage at ten times the ticket cost. Kara Emry as Lottie Wu captures the very spirit of this production when she and William McMichael sing JADED HUSSY. It is she who is responsible, with Louise Jarmilowicz and Tahara for the magnificently ornate and ridiculous costumes. Eric Tyson Wertz is the disillusioned Lili Frustrata. He plays the rejected lover with just the right touch of flamboyance and heart to win the audience. Petrushka is played by Judy Garland impersonator Connie Champagne with such style you cannot believe she isn’t the real materialistic hussy she is on stage.
The Hypnodrome Theatre is intimate enough create the feeling that each song is sung directly TO the audience. They become part of every production. They buy every boisterously rude song and love every wild, enthusiastic dance no matter how preposterous the concept, how unexpected the result. Do not miss this marvelous confection of fun and outrage, guaranteed to shock you and abuse your sensibilities just enough to question your own limitations. It’s too late to experience the real Cockettes, but thanks to Russell Blackwood, you can sample the hypnotic appeal that made them a San Francisco legend and is certain to make his Thrillpeddlers a must-follow group for as long as they dare to dazzle the Bay Area Theatre scene with their flamboyant and unforgettable productions.
By Lynn Ruth Miller for For All Events