A few years ago, the Thrillpeddlers, San Francisco's theater of the gaudy, gory, and grotesque, embarked on a collaboration that could hardly have been more successful: teaming up with the surviving members of the Cockettes, the gender-bending troupe whose weekly performances of drag musicals in the Palace Theater in North Beach in the late '60s and early '70s helped turn drag into what people think of as legitimate theater.
But until 2008, when original Cockette Scrumbly Koldewyn and Thrillpeddlers Artistic Director Russell Blackwood began working together, the Cockettes remained locked in the vaults of history. Since then, the pair has done three Cockettes shows together: Pearls Over Shanghai, Vice Palace, and Hot Greeks — the first of which was slated to run for six weeks and proceeded to run for an astounding 22 months.
This spring, the Thrillpeddlers have revived the other two as a sort of celebratory farewell before moving on to a production of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade in July. Vice Palace closed in March, but Hot Greeks runs through May 19.
Hot Greeks is a joyous conflation of forms and inspirations. One is the 1940s college football musical — yes, that is a real genre. Koldewyn, who composed the show's big band tunes, plays the piano, backed up by Steve Bolinger on the drums and Birdie-Bob Watt on the tenor sax, while the 22-person cast croons and jitterbugs away. It's a world where fraternity football players woo their sweetheart cheerleaders with poetry like, "You're my boola boola/ You're my rah-rah." For the "Betty Co-Eds" in the Tri Thigh sorority, acquiring the men's fraternity pins really effing matters. There's even a song that goes, "Pining for his Pin/ Pearls around the Rim." (To give away many of Koldewyn and Marin Worman's dishy lyrics would be an unforgivable spoiler.) Conveniently, the genre also has a built-in climax: the big game, of course!
But the Greeks here aren't just fraternity brothers. They're also the ancient ones — specifically, those from Aristophanes' Lysistrata, the early comedy in which women withhold sex from their men to force them to stop fighting the Peloponnesian War. In Hot Greeks, the women also deny, but for less clear reasons. Is it to help the Athens U football players beat Sparta on the gridiron? Or do they simply want more attention from their sports-obsessed amours?
This is not to say that logic matters in the slightest in Hot Greeks. All you need to know, as one character says, is that the play is "about cheerleaders, and the way we suffer." The production is pure fun, in that uniquely San Francisco way — which is actually pretty true to the spirit of ancient Greece's Old Comedy. The sparkly codpieces have an ancient parallel, as does the cross-dressing. Many of the Hot Greeks roles are performed in drag, allowing for subversive coupling: same-sex characters played by opposite-sex actors, and vice versa. Nor do the Thrillpeddlers disappoint with the good old-fashioned joys of fake breasts on hairy chests, or codpiece-sporting football players singing surprising soprano. Maxx Kurzunski's costume design spares neither sequins nor glitter, even when they consist of little more than a thong or a jockstrap. And the cast makes the fun contagious, rocking their togas (or what's left of them) and mugging for the audience, all while belting out their silly lyrics and hamming up Bonni Suval's choreography.
Before the Thrillpeddlers came along, San Francisco was deprived of the Cockettes for decades. (This performance of Hot Greeks marks the 40th anniversary of the original.) After this musical closes, let's hope we don't have to wait so long for the next revival. In the meantime, don your wigs and fasten your fraternity codpieces before it's too late.