Theatre Rhino revue looks back
by Richard Dodds
There's something Peter Pan-ish about Theatre Rhinoceros, which has grown old without exactly growing up. In Theatre Rhinoceros: The First 30 Years, a revue that pays tribute to three decades of queer theater-making, current executive director John Fisher, the new show's conceiver and director, tells us that the very first show was a happening titled Gayhem, before the cast breaks into characters to suggest what it might have looked like. The new show in which it's included has a gayhem attitude toward trying to sum up 30 years in under 90 minutes.
That's a good thing, because the task is so improbable that the light and loose spirit at hand is likely required. Fisher, who arrives on stage on a motorized scooter, acts as narrator, using notes to provide names, dates, and details, but mostly maintains a conversational, often self-deprecating tone with the audience. The cast of five will offer "a taste, a sampling," he says, of past productions, with the proviso that only works that were written for Rhino will be included. It's a smart choice, providing a necessary limitation, and also surprising us with material that has gone unseen for years.
That's the case with two scenes from Doric Wilson's Street Theater, in which a preppy type tries to crack the tough facade of a leather queen, with the snappily bitchy repartee amusingly performed by Kim Larsen and Matt Weimer. The scenes are included in Part 1, subtitled "Coming Out/Living Out," one of the four divisions that provide a historical context for the excerpts. It is the mostly comic life of four lesbian roommates that is seen in Theresa Carilli's Dolores Street, adeptly played by Laurie Bushman and Alice Pencavel.
AIDS is the sadly predictable theme of Part 2, but it opens with the ribald and deceptively lighthearted song "Rimmin' at the Baths" by Karl Brown and Matthew McQueen, in which Mike Vega appealingly provides the closest thing to nudity that the show possesses, though the subject is addressed, literally, quite graphically. The song itself at first seems quaint, as it recounts the curable diseases that were once the main blight of sexual activity, but finally mentions the new predator that would change everything. The song was written for The AIDS Show, one of the country's first theatrical responses to AIDS, and another featured scene, Momma's Boy by former artistic director Adele Prandini, is a monologue sensitively performed by Bushman about a mother who lost her son before she ever really got to know him.
The AIDS Show remains a powerful memory for several of those seen in video interviews periodically projected, including cast member Donna Davis, who describes with startlingly poignancy the sudden illness, AIDS, fatally, that took founding artistic director Allan Estes in 1984. Still alive, and seated in the opening-night audience, was Lanny Baugniet, the original managing director, who expresses vividly positive memories and pride in the theater's ongoing life in his video moments. Tom Ammiano, P.A. Cooley, and Brian Thorstensen are also seen on video, but occasionally not heard too well because of overall poor audio to the newly-shot recordings.
Part 3 is something of a catch-all, a fact reflected in its subtitle "Diversity, the Classics, and a Search for New Directions." It is interesting to see how a Marga Gomez piece works without Marga Gomez, and the results are pretty funny in Pencavel's highly animated rendering of a woman who is double-tasking while having an orgasm. An excerpt from Guillermo Reyes' Deporting the Divas is one of the few that overstays its welcome, not the case with a philosophically dense scene from Brad Erickson's Sexual Irregularities and the drag-king duet Hillbillies on the Moon credited to A. Toone. There is also a lovely tune from Twelfth Night by composer Don Seaver and lyricist William Shakespeare.
Weaver also wrote new music for the song that closes Part 4, and the show itself, and it's a kind of novelty tune with Rhino-specific lyrics written by Weimer. The subtitle for Part 4, "The New Millennium," is a bit misleading in that much of it is given to Margery Kreitman's 1950s sitcom satire Please Wait for the Beep that was first produced in 1986, and is showing its age. Since taking over Theatre Rhino five years ago, Fisher's own plays have become regular occurrences. This is acknowledged in a scene from Barebacking featuring a panel of gay activists who argue their causes with a comically life-or-death ferocity by Weimer and Larsen.
The First 30 Years is as polished as it needs to be, and probably should be. There is a quirky spirit to the show that makes the days of Gayhem not seem so far away at all.
Theatre Rhinoceros: The First 30 Years will run at Theatre Rhino through Oct. 14. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 861-5079 or go to http://therhino.org.