Priceless Pearls

27. February, 2010 Theater 5 comments

Show #23: Pearls over Shanghai, Thrillpeddlers, February 21.

Eric Wertz, Steven Satyricon and company. Photo by David Wilson

Pearls over Shanghai opened in June of last year as part of Thrillpeddlers’ Theatre of the Ridiculous Revival and had just kept going ever since, playing to sold-out houses and extending its run repeatedly, most recently to August. It’s been a phenomenal success for the San Francisco Grand Guignol troupe whose Hypnodrome Theatre, tricked out with things that go jump in the dark, is tucked away under the freeway on 10th Street.

First performed at the Palace Theatre in November 1970 (a couple weeks before I was born), Pearls over Shanghai was the first full-length scripted show by the San Francisco’s famous genderfuck hippie drag troupe the Cockettes. The Thrillpeddlers revival was meant to mark the 40th anniversary of the Cockettes, who were only around for a few years in the early ’70s but left a lasting hickey on pop culture, as captured in the 2002 documentary The Cockettes.

Very loosely based on the 1941 Josef von Sternberg film noir The Shanghai Gesture (and very loose in general), the musical written by the late Link Martin and composed by Scrumbly Koldewyn is steeped in early 20th-century Orientalism and campy as all get out. The stage is decked out like the entrance to a kitschy Chinese restaurant in Jim Blackwood’s set, and the program like its menu.

Artistic director Russell Blackwood’s staging is a dizzying spectacle, a whirlwind of kimono-clad courtesans, American sailors, a zoot-suited gangster in Peking Opera makeup, an Andrews Sisters style trio who get captured by a white slavery ring. “You see, we’re just starving young virgins working our way around the world,” one of them says before they sing their tune “Come and Get It.”  You get the picture.

It’s packed with villainesses in operatically elaborate getups, from Fu Manchu’s horny tap-dancing mama, Mother Fu–played by Blackwood in a huge lacy bustier, a vagina loincloth, glittery makeup and a handlebar mustache–to dragon lady Madame Gin Sling (that name’s straight out of The Shanghai Gesture, believe it or not), sometimes played by original Cockette Rumi Missabu but tonight by Valentine with sass to spare.

The part of femme fatale Petrushka rotates through a number of guests from Connie Champagne to Katya Smirnoff-Skyy, and tonight is handled with vampy panache by transsexual diva Veronica Klaus. Mouse Couture is particularly amusing in the small role of leering masochistic henchman Red Dragon, and Eric Tyson Wertz is marvelous as the blushing ingénue Lili Frustrata, a hulking peddler of apples and wonton in elaborate blue and white face paint and a huge headdress.

There’s enough glitter in the intricate makeup in this production to choke a figure skating team, and the costumes by Kara Emry, Louise Jamilowicz and Tahara don’t just steal the show–they practically make it.

Played by composer Koldewyn as German expat pianist Ilsa, the songs are knockouts, rooted in ’30s jazz and blues with touches of Chinese opera and The Mikado.

It’s easy to see why this show has become such a phenomenon. It could last a long time on queer and nostalgia appeal alone, but it offers a little something for everyone, loaded with innuendo, outuendo, broad Yellow Peril stereotypes and random bits of nudity. Curvy dominatrix Lottie Wu (Kara Emry) administers spankings at intermission, and Thrillpeddlers’ facility with glow-in-the-dark spookshows is put to good use for an opium fever dream. If Rocky Horror Picture Show played for years as a cult midnight movie, it’s small wonder that Pearls has been running for months, and could probably run as long as its large rotating cast wants to do it.

The plot, as you might imagine, is all over the place, with a little kidnapping, a little thirst for world domination, spies, crimelords, long-lost relations, opium dens, prostitution, and a whole lot of decadence. If not much of it really goes anywhere, it’s hard to mind much, because when you’re in this deliciously sinful Shanghai, why would you want to go anywhere from there?

Pearls over Shanghai runs through April 9, 2011 (at the very least) at the Hypnodrome Theatre, 575 10th St., San Francisco.

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  1. Liza Bouterage

    2 / 28 / 2010 10:32 am

    What a great review! Measured, intelligent, researched and accurate. What in the world is new media coming to?


  2. Steven Satyricon

    3 / 2 / 2010 9:43 pm

    I agree with Liza! Thanks for the review, Sam. Just one teensy thing–you’ve got my name misspelled in the photo caption–it’s funny ‘cuz i always thought my LAST name would be the one people trip over, but for some reason that particular photo always seems to have my first name attached to it but spelled incorrectly…


    • Sam Hurwitt

      3 / 2 / 2010 11:06 pm

      Fixed! Yeah, it’s misspelled on the press photo site — sorry ’bout that!


  3. Burl Willes

    3 / 5 / 2010 2:51 pm

    This fabulous show is a “Miracle on 10th Street!”
    Where else in San Francisco can you see a company
    of such talented people performing month after month
    for the love of theatre so that we the audience can
    attend for little more than the price of a movie,
    Burl Willes


  4. Vin C

    3 / 5 / 2010 4:54 pm

    In the 70’s when you went to the palace theater for the post midnight show it was filed with hallucinogenic fans wearing wild dionysian costumes helping to blur the line between stage and audience which is one reason why it was THE palace to be in. Now 40 years later San Franciscans have a miniature version of that palace of ecstasy and it’s called the Hypnodrome where all the seats feel like they are on the stage. I can’t get enough of it.





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