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Cartoon of the Playwright as a Gay Man 

Wednesday, Feb 16 2000
Barebacking is sappy, corny, campy, disgusting, tasteless, self-referential, and the funniest thing by John Fisher I've ever seen. I've missed his best stuff, admittedly -- Medea, the Musical predates me; someone else went to see The Joy of Gay Sex. But now and then I squint at Fisher plays and wonder why he has so many fans. He's supposed to be the best young playwright in the Bay Area, but he strikes me as a smart writer who vitiates his talent by supposing that his artistic energy lies in being outrageously from the left, more-liberal-than-thou.

For example: 1998's Titus!, an outdoor extravaganza based on Shakespeare's bloodiest play, cast American conservatives as the Romans and American liberals as the Visigoths -- gay, freewheeling, anti-imperial barbarians. It was funny at first, but when a barbarian said something about setting up "universal health care in Goth land" -- and drew applause -- I saw that in some ways Fisher was a UC Berkeley cliché, a liberal who had to be relentlessly anti-conservative at the expense of being right. Because an anarchistic barbarian plugging for universal health care is a stinking contradiction. (Even G.B. Shaw will tell you that.) Where's your health safety net without a sprawling, Roman-style government?

Barebacking promised to be more of the same. The characters are "actors, dancers and musicians struggling to lead a Bohemian existence in a bourgeois world," according to the press material, and I thought, "Oh, please." The world at large is not "bourgeois," first of all, but Fisher's artists happen to live in the fishbowl of San Francisco, which is too rich not to be bourgeois, and therefore supports colonies of bohemian artists, who after all are just a subset of the bourgeoisie. No money, no bohos. So -- more hackneyed contradictions? More having-it-both-ways? The press release went on: "Barebacking refers not only to anal intercourse without a condom ... but also to an approach to life and an attitude to politics which each of these characters embraces. They might not all be proponents of a radical sex act, but they are all believers in a radical way of life. They live their lives, if not their sex lives, without latex."


I was in a foul mood at the start of the play, for personal reasons, but the opening scene exploded my expectations and even made me laugh. The stage is decorated with signs from the Mission -- Esta Noche, the Old Vic -- and three gay men sit in the middle, behind a cramped table labeled with a sign: "Oscar Wilde - Gertrude Stein - Noel Coward - Kevin Spacey - Gay - Lesbian - Bi - and - Desperately - Confused - Political Society." Two men argue about bathhouses. The balding one, Craig, who turns out to be a Log Cabin Republican, thinks they should stay closed. The queenier one, Peter, rants about his right to fuck any stranger he pleases up the ass without a condom, and hollers, "Any attempt to regulate gay sex in any fashion is fascism!" But when he leaves the political meeting and meets a stranger in a sex club, Peter insists on using a condom. He turns out to be a cartoon of the playwright, a way for Fisher to poke fun at his own image, which is a relief.

The next two hours are a rapid-fire, fictionalized review of Peter's career so far. We visit a half-dozen thinly disguised Fisher plays -- a musical about Alexander the Great, something with Abe Lincoln in drag, a naked all-male Hamlet, etc., up to a new show called Barebacking. The self- references are shameless but also funny. Braided through the ridiculous shows are subplots of romance between Peter and a dancer named Hen; Craig and a music student, Matt; and a lesbian disciplinarian dance teacher named Janet and her cute blond girlfriend Suz. (There's also lots and lots of nudity. One actor decides near the end that being naked should be his new acting style.) After disappearing to New York for several years, Hen returns to San Francisco, reunites with Peter, but talks morosely about his "cocktail" -- he has AIDS. The condom question resurfaces, and the chaotic whirl of staging theater takes on a darker tinge.

Attention to acting, as usual, is slapdash. Paul Tena is energetic as Peter as long as he doesn't need to be sensitive (most of the romantic scenes are sappy). Jane Paik tries to breathe fire as the lesbian disciplinarian dance teacher, but on the night I attended she didn't really mean it. Ashley Hegseth, as the cute blond girlfriend, is certainly cute; but her acting feels young. Charles Boyle does good supporting work as a paramedic, and Christopher Herold, as Craig, is a strong conservative foil until he needs to show heartbreak; then he lapses into an unexplained British accent.

The script is a mess, and the second act feels about 20 minutes too long. Near the end it degrades into dialogue that sounds more like Fisher talking to himself than like any of the characters talking to each other. But all the dross is redeemed by scenes like the sex farce in the "South- of-Market theater," where actors have to slip offstage through a fire-exit door, into the rain, which is really a hose spraying on the wall outside. The person spraying the hose also sprays the audience -- whoops -- and the actors are all soaked, and the sex farce is a total, hilarious disaster. An interlude of quiet dancing by Paik and one quoted passage about grief and fish at the very end (from a play by James Saunders called Next Time I'll Sing to You) also contrast with the fury of the rest of Barebacking to lift it into something impressive, even dramatic.

With this show, paradoxically, Fisher has stepped back from himself to admit that his self-conscious brand of "raw and radical" theater is mostly image-making, political posturing, and that artistic energy doesn't lie on the left or right, or in behaving like a bohemian, but in darker currents that pull from underneath.


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