To thrill is divine

Thrillpeddlers takes its revivalism seriously, in Spandex

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER It's been a different kind of thrill down at the Hypnodrome as Thrillpeddlers enters the 11th month of extensions for its runaway smash hit, The Cockettes' musical Pearls Over Shanghai. One hundred performances strong (as of May 1) and with no end in sight, Thrillpeddlers has slyly redefined its brand of thrills to embrace a wholly different genre besides the Grand Guignol revivalism for which it is best known; setting aside its usual quotient of twisted naturalism and splattered gore for the rambunctious, over-the-top glitter and glam of Theatre of the Ridiculous.

But the two art forms are not entirely unrelated. After all, a staple of Grand Guignol was the steamy sex farce, a fitting description for the ecstatic nudity, cross-dressing, masturbation, and defloration running wild throughout Pearls. And just as the endangered-species quality of Grand Guignol first prompted Thrillpeddlers artistic director Russell Blackwood to begin mounting performances of it in 1991, so too did the precarious posterity of Theatre of the Ridiculous spark a similar interest.

"I didn't want it to become a footnote in theatre history, or just something you read about," Blackwood explains. "It turned me on — the fact that it was as marginalized and as conceivably to be forgotten in the way I was concerned Grand Guignol might be." In 2008, Thrillpeddlers took the slapstick scripts of Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium by Charles Busch and Charles Ludlum's Jack and the Beanstalk and mounted its first "Theatre of the Ridiculous" festival, eventually taking the whole show on the road — along with an hour-long rendition of Pearls Over Shanghai — to the HOWL festival in New York City's East Village.

"It went really, really great," Blackwood said. "We had two full separate bills that played in repertory with each other. And afterward, seeing a videotape of that made me realize just what to do with Pearls."

Of course it wasn't just Blackwood's vision that made the Pearls revival possible; it was also the ongoing collaboration with musical director and original Cockette Scrumbly Koldewyn, who painstakingly brought together songs and scripting from multiple versions of the show despite having scarce archived material — save memories and a few recordings — to work from. Koldewyn also has been an instrumental force behind the upcoming revival of Hot Greeks, the only other "book" musical from the original Cockettes repertoire, (opening at the Hypnodrome May 2). He also accompanies the shows nightly on the piano.

One particularly interesting aspect about Pearls is the way it has brought together multiple generations worth of queer performance fixtures: the original founder of Theatre Rhinoceros, Lanny Baugniet, who performs an opium freakout clad in skintight silver lamé; Jef Valentine, whose Madame Gin Sling drips with Frank N. Furter juice and alternates with original Cockette Rumi Missabau; the eternally robust Steven Satyricon as a rosy-cheeked Naval Captain with a mysterious past; and the role of Russian VIP escort Petrushka, serially portrayed by no fewer than four drag Grand Dames.

But by no means is Theatre of the Ridiculous meant to be viewed solely through a queer lens. Blackwood estimates that slightly less 50 percent of the cast is queer-identified. And the myriad Thrillpeddlers core company members, who started off as ghoulish Grand Guignolians, mesh well with their gaily glittering counterparts.

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