Sweet Parody! Written and performed by Tom Orr. Directed by Dana Peter Porras. At Josie's Cabaret, 3583 16th St. (at Market), through April 17. Call 861-7933.
SBF: Single Black Female. By Lisa B. Thompson. Directed by Colman Domingo. Starring Comika Griffin and Tia Hunnicutt. At Luna Sea in Theater Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (near South Van Ness), through April 10. Call 861-5079.
ElectrOphelia. Written and directed by Elizabeth Spreen. Starring Gillian Chadsey, Patrick McCracken, and Susannah Martin. At the Brady Street Theater, 60 Brady (at Gough), through April 17. Call 558-9355.
The very fact that gay solo shows tend to be wallows of narcissism is what Tom Orr attempts to parody in Sweet Parody! After the success of last year's Dirty Little Showtunes!, Orr has whittled down the idea of singing Broadway musical parodies in a variety-show format. Now he sings them in a one-man show, featuring himself, and sometimes his penis. Narcissistic? Of course. It's almost impossible to enrapture an audience for 90 minutes by singing your own cheesy rip-offs of other people's cheesy songs, though, so Orr brings on guest stars -- but the sheer absurdity of the idea is the whole idea.
He begins with nothing but his voice and a boyish urge to please, and, accompanied by Birdie-Bob Watt on piano, sings a corrupted version of "If My Friends Could See Me Now," from Sweet Charity, followed by a series of songs detailing his life in Southern California as an unmasculine misfit. "I was the 8-year-old in Little League, sitting in left field with my glove on my head, belting Ethel Merman to the gophers," he tells us between songs -- a line that was somehow a lot funnier the first time around, printed in the DLS! program. Orr's deliberately self-indulgent part of the show (headlined "My Life Story") stumbles because his instinct for satire isn't pure: Some of his material really is self-indulgent. He seems so thrilled to be onstage he can't deliver lines like "This show's my one big chance/ To do what I want/ It sure beats waitin' tables in a restaurant" with enough distance or irony.
But Orr saves himself through exaggeration. After threatening to strip, he brings out a one-eyed sock puppet of his penis, which dances with him under the spotlight during a song about masturbation. This piece also misses being pure satire, but the idea is funny.
Finally, Orr goes off to let Birdie-Bob Watt do a song. Watt was one of the highlights in Dirty Little Showtunes!, and his lanky, skeptical presence at the piano is a relief. True, he sings about the same thing Orr sings about -- Orr -- but it's nice to have a fresh perspective.
The best parts of the show are a song about Harvey Milk (based on "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd") and a trio with two of Orr's guests -- Trauma Flintstone and P.A. Cooley, on my night -- singing "Turn in Your Fag Card," based on "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" (from Kiss Me, Kate). Flintstone also did a gaudy, horny, strong-voiced song about sex, fluttering her long fake eyelashes and ominously jerking her gowned body in front of a few audience members (she's a terrifying drag queen), while Cooley did a good version of "I'm Just a Boy Who Can't Say No."
The reason Orr's show doesn't work as well as it should as satire is worth examining. A few months ago I criticized a solo performer for being good at presenting any character other than himself. This is the most common and damning fault in solo performance: Most actors seem to believe that putting their own personas onstage excuses them from having to act. But playing yourself has invisible dangers that can make hash of otherwise solid performers when they try to speak "straight" to an audience. So the real problem with solo shows is more subtle than the material harping on "me, me, me," and I think this explains why Orr's satire doesn't quite work. He hasn't created a really strong stage persona (like Trauma Flintstone's), and he gets caught up in self-indulgence even when he tries to condemn it.
SBF: Single Black Female falls under the same heading of Self-Referential Performance, but it involves two black women, Tia Hunnicutt and Comika Griffin, known as "SBF #1" and "SBF #2," who are mostly not gay. They spend two hours describing their lives as professional, urban, bisexual, lonely, single, hip, sassy black women. The play is funny, raunchy, and sometimes fast-paced, but it doesn't have the energy of the last show Colman Domingo directed at Theater Rhino, Up Jumped Springtime, and as a concept it seems kind of artless, because all Lisa Thompson has said she wanted to accomplish by writing this play was to tell the world about professional, urban, bisexual, lonely, single, hip, sassy black women.
The work has no story line. Instead, we get profiles, like classified ads in the paper: SBF #1 and #2 are "intellectual and leftist but with a conservative fiscal ideology"; they subscribe to The Nation and Vibe; they like dry martinis, Evian, Lubriderm lotion, and Altoids. They have "too much anger." They shop at Whole Foods and drink pinot blanc and various microbrews. They live in Oakland, like the author. They feel the pull of tradition and the pressure to make babies whenever they go to family events. But every kind of man has let them down, from the hip-hop-listening bruthah to the "lettered black fool" (D.D.S., M.B.A., Ph.D.) to the guy on the street who says, "Mm, woman, you sho' look nice. Can I get me summa that?"
Hunnicutt and Griffin have the knack of presenting themselves, or at least presenting characters a lot like themselves, in a bright and engaging way. The routines that work are funny. But SBF also has no sense of surprise. Yes, middle-class black women get short shrift on TV; yes, they live life in the large uncertain spaces between stereotypes; and of course people should write more plays about them. But do the scripts have to be so literal? The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae, at the Lorraine Hansberry, was about a professional woman suing the stereotypes themselves; SBF tries to create a new stereotype with witty lists of everyday pleasures and griefs. What happened to simple, solid stage portraits? To me the best way to fight a stereotype has always been with finely detailed strokes, not with broad "anti-stereotype" gestures that get old as quickly as cheese.
One last play whose self-indulgence is worth mentioning is ElectrOphelia, by Dead Horse Theater Ensemble. Gillian Chadsey, Patrick McCracken, Susannah Martin, and Elizabeth Spreen have put together an Anne Bogart-style movement piece combining Hamlet and Sophocles' Electra. Both plays, you'll notice, feature heroines with rocky home lives: Electra wanted to kill her mom, and Ophelia went crazy after Hamlet ran a sword through her dad. Hamlet is also a medieval Oedipus drama, while Electra is -- well, heard of an Electra complex? ElectrOphelia tries to connect the dots with movement and fragmented speeches. It doesn't work. Spreen wrote the script and directed; Chadsey, McCracken, and Martin all wear unisexual robes and chant, breathe, and slide across the floor at Brady Street Theater until the audience is thoroughly confused.
Chopping up classic plays can be interesting: Art Street did it well two years ago with R&J. But ElectrOphelia breaks up two familiar story lines and turns them into something that's not just unfamiliar but also not a story. The various acts, or pieces, move with no discernible logic, inner or outer. Actors change characters without warning and recite fragments from Ginsberg, Joyce, and I Love Lucy; Polonius dies behind the arras about a dozen times. A note in the program says the ensemble recognizes its audience "as the ultimate creator in our work," but to let this kind of thing go on for more than 90 minutes with no intermission is to forget the audience completely. ElectrOphelia proves that narcissism has little to do with raw material. These players draw their stuff from good old classic plays, but still sing of nothing but themselves.
-- Michael Scott Moore