In her pre-show speech for The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes, ensemble member Laurie Bushman must remind the audience to refrain from shouting out punch lines before the cast gets a chance to deliver them. If you know the jokes, great, she said to Friday night's crowd, but try to enjoy your knowledge "privately."
She was wise to instruct. This Trannyshack production, now in its seventh year, is a huge draw just in its premise: drag queens (Cookie Dough, Heklina, Pollo del Mar, and Matthew Martin) performing verbatim Christmas episodes of The Golden Girls, the beloved '80s sitcom about the cute shenanigans (and occasional bestiality jokes) of four older women who room together in Miami. But the audience is just as much a part of the performance as the actors are. Year after year, The Golden Girls draws the kind of crowds who don't just know all the jokes; these television experts can flawlessly sing along with both the show's theme song, "Thank you for being a friend," and the many commercials of yesteryear -- The Clapper, Rice-a-Roni -- that are played during the performers' copious costume changes.
There are so many costume changes, in fact, that though this production consist of only two 22-minute episodes, it somehow lasts for two hours. But that's partly because these rowdy, randy audiences know how to get what they want, cheering to encourage the queens to keep working their garish prints with Christmas-themed appliques long after the shock of their horrendous costumes could be over. Martin (who also directs), in particular, can make an entrance into a minutes-long dance-in-place of self-pleasure. Pollo del Mar as Rose, with her five pounds of eye makeup, looks like an insect, and she uses those bug eyes to dazzling effect, zipping through scores of stock melodramatic facial expressions after a character announces he's gay -- the horror! Heklina as Dorothy has an even deeper and wryer voice than Bea Arthur, who played the role in the sitcom, making her zingers pack all the more punch. Only Cookie Dough, as Sophia, fails to maximize her role's comic possibilities. Her basket purse and her prancing gait belie piss and vinegar, but Dough delivers all her lines with the same generic old lady inflection, leaving it up to the audience to find the laugh.
San Francisco might not always celebrate the holidays in a traditional way, but we certainly have our own vibrant holiday traditions. The Golden Girls is one; PianoFight's A Merry FORKING! Christmas is another. Playwright Daniel Heath has been writing the holiday-themed choose-your-own-adventure sketch comedy for four years now. "Forking" refers to places where the story could go in two directions, and the audiences' vote, by show of applause, decides how the plot unfolds.
This year's Forking! is set in what, before the Internet, was the true locus of Christmas: the mall. Heath's sketches rarely rely on easy gags or obvious punch lines; rather, he offers a slice of life in an array of characters and scenes that vary strikingly in tone. Some are doleful, others tender, still others ludicrous -- as when Santa, or at least a Santa expert, is brilliantly combined with a character from Star Wars. Happily, Heath creates many interesting female roles -- an all too rare phenomenon in sketch comedy -- from a security guard who takes her work too seriously (Sarah Wright) to a morgue makeup artist who doesn't know how to interact with the living (Jamie Lee Currier) to a superficial, domineering fiancée who turns out to have many more dimensions than she initially appears to (Kelly Rauch).
Even if some forks seem rigged -- what San Francisco audience wouldn't vote to give an uptight customer Christmas cookies laced with pot? -- this show is also very much about those in attendance. You might find yourself voting as a contrarian or strategically allying with certain pockets of the crowd. Even if you vote to set a character on fire, this ensemble, under the direction of Christy Crowley, makes its work so appealing that you're also somehow rooting for that character at the same time.
The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes continues through Dec. 30 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St. (at Mission), S.F. Admission is $30.
A Merry Forking! Christmas continues through Dec. 30 at The Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), S.F. Admission is $26-$40.