If you attempt to resist the steamrolling charm of New Conservatory Theatre Center's Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, you're not just hardening your heart — you're missing out on the way tenderness can work as activism, on the way conventional narratives can, when aggregated, muster the force of a movement. The nine short plays, all directed by Sara Staley, don't chart new ground individually, a near-impossible task in a town with a seen-it-all attitude toward LGBT theater. The humor in Jordan Harrison's The Revision, about the bureaucratic language gays must use to describe their relationships, will be familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the gay marriage debate; in Paul Rudnick's The Gay Agenda, the Midwestern homemaker who's a member of "Family First," "Save the Family," and "Christian Family Fortress," among many, many similar organizations, is a common enough stereotype (though one reinvigorated by Colleen Egan, who makes ignorance almost sympathetic and performs hysteria as aria).
But taken together, the plays serve as a salutary reminder of what the term "gay marriage," often simplified for political purposes, ought to signify: a kaleidoscopic and often contradictory cornucopia of associations every bit as rich as, well, the term "marriage," with as many meanings as there are gay people. The crux of many of the plays is debate about marriage traditions — To wear a white dress or a black one? To use the same old vows everyone else does, to subvert them, or to write their own poetic language? To be understanding, or to confront? — and all sides feel right.
If this message sounds like a simple one for most San Franciscans, NCTC is taking it on the road as part of its Pride on Tour to Modesto, Fresno, and Grass Valley — places where the plays may have a bigger job to do.
Standing on Ceremony ends, fittingly enough, with a scene of an actual wedding ceremony, Pablo & Andrew At the Altar of Words by José Rivera, in which the couple promise, "I swear to listen," and, "I swear to dream your dreams when they're too big for you to carry."
Pearls over Shanghai, by the Thrillpeddlers, also ends with a wedding of sorts, but here the couple is an American sailor (Steven Satyricon) who sings, "I was blue 'cause my baby was yellow," and Lili, played by Diogo Zavaddzki (understudying for Eric Tyson Wertz the night I saw it) in drag and in yellowface. She births a mutant: a stuffed animal with two heads, one to represent each of its parents' races (with props by and to Yusuke Soi).
This musical revue is a revival of a revival. The Thrillpeddlers also performed it a few years ago, and it ran for an astonishing 22 months. The show was written and first performed in 1970 at North Beach's Palace Theater by the Cockettes, the notorious gender-queer troupe, three of whose members perform in this show: Scrumbly Koldewyn, who wrote the music and many of the lyrics, Sweet Pam Tent, and Rumi Missabu. All the modern-day Thrillpeddlers, however, channel the Cockettes' spirit. Nudity abounds; copious drag creates a gender-transcending paradise; shock value is the only value.
In director Russell Blackwood's hands, Pearls Over Shanghai is part titty show, part orientalist bushwa, and, somehow, part paean to humankind. The plot, if the narrative of what is on display here could be called such, consists of a bunch of Westerners descending on a dime store version of "Old Shanghai," and all the characters, such as the loin-clothed slave Chop Chop (Earl Alfred Paus), the brothel madame Madam Gin Sling (Missabu), and the Russian whore/spy Petrushka (Noah Haydon), are only costume-deep. But oh, what costumes. Lipstick blinds. Wigs tower and teeter. Fake boobs flap listlessly.
Yet for a production that includes lines like "I no give fashion tips to low concubine sluts," this show, believe it or not, could still go further. Many members of this ensemble lack the shamelessness required to make many of the punch lines pop, and many don't sing loudly enough to make presumably outrageous lyrics heard above Koldewyn's piano.
But if Pearls over Shanghai doesn't mark the Thrillpeddlers' finest smut, that's a high bar. Even not at their best, they're still the smuttiest and most quintessentially San Franciscan company around.