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Falling for the Weird: Two Autumn Shows Embrace S.F. in All of Its Bizarre, Shocking Glory 

Tuesday, Oct 21 2014
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The Barbary Coast Revue celebrates one of San Francisco's most notorious epochs, a time when bars were on boats, men outnumbered women 30 to one, and gold could make your fortune (unless you got shanghaied into servitude aboard a ship), and manages to be a good time despite itself. Choices that would normally irk me — projecting the lyrics to a song as it's sung, even when the lyrics are only, "Hey-ey-ey"; designating a red-light district with an actual red light, which an actor must fumblingly reach to turn on mid-song; developing the historical characters more clearly (and accurately) in the printed program than onstage — I forgave with uncharacteristic ease.

When I learned that three of the six cast members are related (Stephanie Rapa, Stacey Kennedy, and Danny Kennedy), I figured it out: Seeing The Barbary Coast Revue, which was written and directed by Blake Wiers, is like watching a performance in your friend's den. The venue, reached through a maze of artwork at the rear of Sub-Mission Art Space, is about the right size for a dinner party, and guests share tables with other parties, and leg and elbow space with performers. The scepter of Emperor Norton (Wiers), a historical figure who, with some success, declared himself emperor of the city, nearly misses your head one moment, and you're dancing a conga line down the space's eight feet of aisle with him the next.

In the second act, the show hits its stride when the script becomes so cheesy that even the half-baked performances — the ensemble constantly dithers between melodrama and camp — can't ruin the humor. Dueling parodies of '90s tunes from the likes of Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind, and En Vogue create a glorious battle of the sexes between Alma deBretteville Spreckels (Rapa), who is here envisioned as a showgirl, a relatively small, for this production, embellishment on the truth, and Jerry (Andrew Lampl) the hapless prospector-turned- bartender-turned-kidnapped sailor.

It's at this point that the show's flaws — Wiers' delivering every line, uncannily, with the same inflection; a script with lines like "Alma, under here! Under this rope!"—become endearing, and this ramshackle, plucky troupe finds its own place in the true history of San Francisco: that of the eccentrics and hams who follow their bliss and make this city great.

Over at the Hypnodrome, the Thrillpeddlers, under the masterful leadership of Russell Blackwood, are also hosting a revue that feels like a family reunion you're heartily welcomed into. It's the kind of place where, if you don't want to park your bike outside, a fully costumed actor invites you to wheel it across the stage and park it in the wings right before the show starts. Some might say the company's welcome is a little too hearty.

Shocktoberfest 15: The Bloody Debutante is the Thrillpeddlers' best Shocktoberfest in many years and the production to see if you've never checked out this quintessentially San Franciscan company. This troupe doesn't just ignore boundaries; it castrates them and then ritualistically, as if in a secret society ... oh wait, spoiler alert.

Previous Shocktoberfests have always revolted their audiences — the Thrillpeddlers consider extravagant ways of inflicting violence upon the human body, usually when it's naked, a beautiful art form. And since the troupe often adapts early 20th century Grand Guignol texts, exposition could often be dreary and wordy.

But in this Shocktoberfest, the scripts and lyrics by Rob Keefe, Paulo Biscaia Filho, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Damien Chacona, and Andy Wenger cut to the chase — and the quick. They seem to be crafted specifically for individual actors' strengths, allowing both seasoned Thrillpeddlers like Birdie Bob Watt and already-excellent newcomers like Hayley Nystrom to shine. Nystrom, in particular, can cycle through all the classic poses of melodrama just in the way she blinks. Props by newcomer Yusuke Soi are also stars of the show. On a shoestring budget, Soi creates not just skeletons but skeletons that are clearly the victim of a very particular kind of sadism, or the syrupy sheen of a sexual organ poised for attack.

Diva moments abound at Shocktoberfest: When Noah Haydon, the company's most charismatic drag performer, seizes the microphone amid jaw-dropping gore; when John Flaw, the new resident villain, with eyes as windows to beyond the grave, purrs bitter nothings into a victim's ear; and when you, caressed on the thigh by an actor during Shocktoberfest's traditional glow-in-the-dark spook show, titter — or wail — into the darkness.

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Lily Janiak

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