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Myth Interpretation 

Two thieves, six actors, and one enduring Mission District legend

Wednesday, Nov 9 2005
In the opening scene of Campo Santo's The Ballad of Pancho and Lucy, Matt Stryker, a feckless newshound and Sam Spade wannabe, turns up at a Mission District dive on the prowl for a scoop. He's received an anonymous tip-off that "the celebrated Lucy One-Eye and Pancho Pistolas" -- a pair of small-time crooks with a bar-robbing habit -- might be planning a stickup at the joint that very night. At first, the saloon's ragtag assortment of regulars denies all knowledge of the criminals. But as the booze flows, the collective amnesia lifts. It turns out that each character, including Orville Spudman, the bleary-eyed ex-cop, and ballsy barkeep Hortense, has a theory to share about San Francisco's "Latino Bonnie & Clyde," whether about how the couple came to be or how Lucy lost an eye.

For Sandy Pants, whose slurred speech and cheap blond wig suggest she's seen better days, Pancho and Lucy's tale is one of love at first sight -- a passionate story about two gun-toting soulmates fighting to survive in a hostile world. Tyrell, a greasy-haired, self-described "two-bit palpitating shithead bottom feeder," takes a less romantic point of view: "Bitch Cassidy and Sundance" are nothing more than a couple of strung-out drug addicts desperate for their next fix. Other theories about the reason for the robberies abound, from funding a trip to Vegas to paying for a sex-change operation. As poor Stryker gets steadily sloshed on Shirley Temples (with two cherries, no less), both his shorthand and the facts become increasingly blurred. Pancho and Lucy clearly represent different things to different people, from the admirable to the absurd.

Everybody loves a real-life fairy tale. There are few things more validating, it seems, than reading about the Cinderella next door who marries the handsome prince, or the old lady at the bottom of the street caught making fricassees out of little boys. (I freely admit to being transfixed by the front covers of the National Enquirer and O magazine while standing in the checkout line at Safeway.) That Pancho and Lucy is supposedly based on a true story about a local couple who robbed a succession of Mission District bars and nightclubs in the late '80s and early '90s gives Octavio Solis' rambunctious musical play an irresistible twist.

Little is known about the source material today except that the pair were eventually caught in a Daly City motel, having foolishly attempted to use a cab as a getaway car. But that hardly matters. For Pancho and Lucy simultaneously sends up and celebrates our ability to create full-blown urban legends out of the scantest facts. It's not for nothing, after all, that the play takes place in a bar called El Chisme ("the rumor" in Spanish). The setting, with its musty memorabilia and even mustier-looking clientele, speaks volumes about the human capacity for invention.

A strange cocktail of Dashiell Hammett, Kurt Weill, and Cheers, this modern-day Robin Hood story (without the altruism and the green tights) finds its power in the careful balance between wild imagination and meticulous attention to detail. If Beth Custer's toe-tapping musical numbers (accompanied by a live three-piece band) and choreographer Erika Chong Shuch's cartoonish dance steps make the thieves seem larger than life, the casting -- in which the two characters are tossed among different actors -- makes them appear quasi-mystical. An eye patch, a white down vest, and a matching Oakland Raiders beanie are all it takes to transform assorted barflies into the Cyclopean Lucy; several assay the role during the course of the show. The same goes for Pancho, for whom various actors don a fedora and a makeshift purple poncho emblazoned with a human skull. Besides being visually interesting and extremely funny, the diverse interpretations of the two characters suggest that there might be a bit of both of them in each of us -- and that, to go a step further, we as human beings are collectively responsible for the creation of our myths.

Yet for all our willingness to suspend disbelief, it's the specific, local flavor of Solis' text that makes Pancho and Lucy rise above fairy tale terrain. The play is packed with references to the neighborhood in which it was born. Local nightspots, from the 500 Club to the Elbo Room, come to life through vivid description, gritty humor, and James Faerron's absurdly accurate dive bar set -- an effort that would have impressed Victorian-era audiences for its attention to historical detail. You can almost catch a whiff of stale beer coming off the half-working neon signs, rickety tables, and strings of chili-shaped lights.

The characters, such as Delia MacDougall's cellulite-pitted Sandy Pants and Donald E. Lacy Jr.'s autistic Fred Spindle, feel like they're based on real people, as if they've stepped out of a Herb Caen column onto Intersection for the Arts' compact stage. Indeed, some of them probably have: Danny Wolohan's Spudman, for one, recalls Robert Geary, a San Francisco police officer who used to patrol North Beach with a 10-pound ventriloquist's dummy by the name of Brendan O'Smarty until he got in trouble with the taxman in the late '90s. In one of the play's funniest scenes, Spudman and his wooden sidekick, Tiny Smalls, confront Pancho and Lucy with a minuscule gun. The puppet takes control and the gangsters blanch.

I must admit that after seeing the show I felt as desperate for the facts as Stryker. With Custer's songs still ricocheting around our heads, a couple of friends and I dropped in at Delirium, the former site of the Albion, one of the nightspots reportedly victimized by Pancho and Lucy. We wanted to feel closer to the hoodlums and the bars they hijacked, to immerse ourselves in the real-life story behind the play. It was a disappointing experience. As we sat there sipping beer against a backdrop of icy blue light, thumping rock music, and cocktail-sloshing Halloween revelers, I found it hard to imagine what the place -- described by one online reviewer as "a bit of a bridge and tunnel 20-something meat market" -- must have been like back in the days when it was the diviest of all Mission District dive bars and the target of a Bonnie & Clyde-style crime spree.

On one level, it doesn't make any difference that, like Zorro and the Lone Ranger, Solis' anti-heroes are more folklore than flesh. For out of some forgotten local headlines, Solis and Campo Santo spin the stuff of legend. Yet it's telling that a "Pancho and Lucy Bar Crawl," scheduled by Intersection as a sideshow to the main act, sold out so quickly that the organization added extra dates. As the Mission District of yore disappears under a deluge of hipster boutiques, overpriced restaurants, and Delirium-esque bars, we find ourselves clinging to any vestige of the retreating past, no matter how fanciful it might be.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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