Sexology 101
Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld's Museum of Sexology. Written and directed by Mel Gordon. Starring Howard Pinhasik and Midori. At 1209 Howard, 1209 Howard (at Eighth Street), through Aug. 17. Call 646-0864.

Fin de siecle comparisons between late-20th-century San Francisco and Weimar Germany often note the flourishing of decadence, sexuality, liberal politics, and art. Indeed, Magnus Hirschfeld, the turn-of-the-century German sex liberationist, is so quintessentially San Franciscan that it's difficult to imagine him living in any other time or town but our own. And yet he was elbow-deep in sex-positivism long before Wilhelm Reich opened a book, Alfred Kinsey opened his clinic, or Annie Sprinkle opened her legs. One hundred years ago, he founded the first homosexual rights organization, the first scientific sexual clinic, the first sexual exhibition hall, and a sex shop.

Despite these impeccable credentials, many in our own Sodom-by-the-Bay had never heard of Magnus Hirschfeld until a coalition of Jewish, gay, and German organizations presented a three-month festival in his honor this year. With the films, lectures, and serious discussions done, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld's Museum of Sexology offers the chance to revel in a Hirschfeldian wonderland. Conceived by UC Berkeley Drama Professor Mel Gordon, the evening captures Hirschfeld's playful, obsessive, Sensurround vision of sexuality. The $35 ticket gets you not only an artifact exhibit, videos, and historical information but food, music, drink, perfume, massage, clinical demonstrations, and finally, a performance.

The exhibition hall opens 30 minutes before show time. There one can pore over erotic vases from ancient Egypt and fertility statuettes with giant vaginas from pagan Ireland. Museum attendants in little black vinyl uniforms explain objects in display cases and demonstrate the Masturbation Machine, a painful-looking device involving a man's shoe and a bicycle tire. A television plays an early German film of the first sexual surgery. The Flagellation Machine -- a 6-foot spoked wheel mounted with cloth dolls -- spins continually, exposing plastic pink butts for sadistic passers-by to paddle. Delicate and salacious strains of erotic music from around the world waft through the scented air. In a small private room women receive aphrodisiac hand massages by a middle-aged Freulein.

"Is zees the hand you masturbate with?" she asks, massaging the palm of a starry-eyed, leather-clad brunette. "Then let us release the energy from the mound of Venus and curl it up. Remember: Your hands are instruments of seduction. Use them."

All this and the performance has not yet begun. At the end of a curtained corridor, the room opens into an old-fashioned cabaret replete with a buffet of allegedly aphrodisiac foods. Marquis de Sade Prison Salad transforms the ascetic fibrous celery with the decadence of nutmeg and butter. Aztec-Mexican Aphrodisiac Pastry folds butternut squash, damiana, and feta into hot, fleshy mounds. Tiny tits of spiced vanilla ice cream gaze out with chocolate chip nipples. Finally, after a frenzy for the hors d'oeuvres and several sexy German cabaret tunes played on a piano, the show begins with a homey lecture-cum-demonstration by Hirschfeld (played by Howard Pinhasik) concerning a cure for menstrual cramps and a scientific test for sexual orientation.

Up to and including Pinhasik's 20-minute spiel, the whole evening has been borne along by a giddy irony that undermines any potential sex-positive evangelism. Enter Midori, a real German-Japanese dominatrix whose act consists of subjecting a slave to a penile guillotine. (The main erotic act varies from night to night.) When she steps onstage in her silver rubber Chinese dress and Peking Opera white-face, the audience's titters dissipate into captivated silence. She's the real thing -- not some actor with a silly German accent. But then, as she begins talking -- too quietly -- between the slow strutting and the posing and the humiliating, the audience suddenly realizes: Maybe the real thing isn't all that compelling. After half an hour of excruciating S/M pageantry, one can almost hear the gritting of teeth. Dramatized sex, it turns out, has little in common with sexy drama. Sex is not one but two things: first, an action we do in private, and second, an arena of thought, feeling, and story we embellish in public. Faced with the real thing, in real time, even by an acclaimed master like Midori, only serves to remind us of the implacable distance between the illustrious fantasy of sexiness and the complicated reality of sex.

-- Carol Lloyd

Hand Job
Oh Vienna! / The Wife of Puccio. Written and directed by Kevin Caulfield. Puppets by Gael Kanievsky. Starring Caulfield, Chris Xiques, and Andy Cowitt. Presented by Vile Jelly at the Wise Fool Puppet Theater, 395 Valencia (at 15th Street), June 19 and 26. Call 905-5958.

A name like Vile Jelly suggests a tweaking punk band, not a troupe of puppeteers who mount operettas with names like Oh Vienna! or The Wife of Puccio. But Kevin Caulfield and Gael Kanievsky's small tribe of hand thespians defies most expectations. While embracing the decorous arts of rod puppetry, rhyming couplets, and Italian opera, the group subjects them to the taboo tastes and sensibilities of the Inner Mission demimonde.

A summary of the plots gives a peek into the absurd neo-medieval terrain. In Caulfield's original one-act Oh Vienna!, Deuteronomy and his manservant, Dan Detrius, flee to the woods to avoid their debtors. They get lost and sing about returning to the city. Then a priest feeds them soporific fungi, buggers them in their sleep, and gives them a magic pouch that fills their pockets with money. The two millionaires then wander the forest singing about their wealth and the ironic fact that they cannot use it. Finally, a character called Ugly Toad leads them back to the city but bamboozles them out of their magic pouch.

The Wife of Puccio, adapted from Boccaccio's Decameron, is similarly goofy, if a tad more coherent. Isabetta cannot get her husband, the elderly, pious Puccio, to fulfill her carnal needs. A traveling monk, noticing her disheveled ardor, convinces Puccio that he can ensure his entry into heaven if he ties himself to a cross on the roof all night. Whereupon the monk ministers to Isabetta, the house shakes with her orgasm, and Puccio takes it for the joyous spirit of the Lord.

The silly story lines -- cobbled together with clever yet often overexpository couplets -- are only a skeleton upon which to hang the real spectacle: Vile Jelly's insane, endearing formal vision. Kanievsky's elegant yet ravaged rod puppets came to uncanny animation with the slightest shiver or gesture; under the lights the plaster and fabric emanated the disturbing charisma of good actors. Given the prurient script, however, Kanievsky could have exploited her puppets for more laughs. (The monk's member never rose beneath his robe, for instance.) The music, all composed by Caulfield and sung by the three actors -- Chris Xiques, Andy Cowitt, and Caulfield -- perfectly captured the primitive genius of the high-low art form. With demented, singsong arias -- accompanied by Caulfield on piano -- the all-male trio attacked their melodies with the infectious abandon of children playing make-believe in the basement. Adults rarely pull off such reckless naivete, but Vile Jelly walks a fine line between meticulous virtuosity and sophomoric glee, classical form and anarchistic narrative. In order to grow, the troupe'll need to explore and evolve the shrunken bizarre world they have discovered. Let's only hope they do so without ruining its rough and vile beauty.

-- Carol Lloyd

Parking Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night's Dream. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Jennifer Epps. Starring Marin Van Young, Dylan Kussmann, Nahid Varjavand, Kevin Karrick, and Michael Storm. Puppets designed by Michael Frassinelli. Presented by Shotgun Players at Mosswood Park, Broadway & MacArthur in Oakland, Aug. 9 to 17, and afterward at John Hinkel Park, on Sommerset east of Arlington in Berkeley, Aug. 23 to 31. Call (510) 655-0813.

Any theater troupe trying to do Shakespeare in the park has to risk being reduced by children, dogs, traffic, and wind to looking like a bunch of random weirdos mouthing archaic lines. The Shotgun Players have gotten around that problem, mostly, by choosing a play that lets them use puppets. Their version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a papier-mache fantasy of fairies that look like animals. The cast wears no costumes, so the opening scenes fall back on pure dialogue to introduce the story, which doesn't always translate in the park. While Hermia gets formally condemned to an unwanted marriage to Demetrius, and flees into the woods around Athens to elope with her lover, Lysander, the wind carries away some crucial lines, kids act restless, and a dog runs onto the stage.

But the show improves when the puppets come on. Oberon and Titania look like male and female cats, life-size puppets attached to Kevin Karrick and Karra Tsiaperas; the attending fairies are smaller animals, including a snouted rodent with horns and a bird in a livery costume; for some reason Puck looks like a boar, and maybe the best way to describe Peaseblossom is to say he doesn't look unlike a blue guinea pig with scales.

The heart of A Midsummer Night's Dream goes roughly like this: Puck has been ordered as a joke by the Fairy King Oberon to anoint his wife, Titania, with a potion that will make her fall in love with the first person she sees. Puck touches her with the potion and then changes the head of a stray actor named Bottom into the head of an ass, and lets Titania fall in love with him. Lysander and Demetrius, sleeping in the woods, also get touched by the potion, and fall in love with Demetrius' ex-girlfriend Helena. This is inconvenient for Hermia, who's trying to elope with Lysander.

The Shotgun Players are a young crew, so the show works best when they're playful. When Lysander and Hermia bed down for the night, Hermia pulls out a hair dryer but can't find a place in the forest to plug it in. When Helena and Hermia argue, Helena calls her rival a "puppet." Sometimes the actors overextend themselves to be heard, especially Marin Van Young, who forces her lines as Hermia. "Keep word, Lysander: We must starve our sight/ From lovers' food till morrow deep midnight" doesn't need to sound hysterical. When Hermia grows furious, though, Van Young is funny; she seems to enjoy beating up on people. Kevin Karrick, as Theseus and Oberon, has a good sense of the balanced, fairy tale-ish postures he needs as king; and Michael Storm is good in the same way, as Bottom, with a projecting voice that doesn't strain. Maybe the secret to A Midsummer Night's Dream is not to take it too seriously, and Karrick and Storm have the right self-detachment to make their performances dance.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Life's a Beach
Psycho Beach Party. By Charles Busch. Directed by Richard Ginsberg. Starring Jason Scott Buro, Diana Brown, Alison Lustbader, and Flynn De Marco. At the Studio at the Theater Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at Capp), through Aug. 16. Call 861-5079.

The vision of a talented director can shine through a stage production like liquor biting through a cocktail. But more often, the flubs of a less practiced director overwhelm the otherwise tasty mix of a solid script. A few fundamental mistakes drag down Psycho Beach Party at Theater Rhinoceros. The play has an amusing premise -- Chicklet, a Florida teen, learns to surf and wins a steady boyfriend. The catch is that she suffers from a multiple personality disorder. At the mention of the color red, the blushing teen is transformed into Anne Beaumont, a sexual dominatrix who shaves her lovers (and anyone else snoozing on the beach) baby's-ass bare. Dueling identities usually aren't a laugh riot, but the prescriptive casting of Chicklet as a man in drag reinforces the camp values. And it's very minimal drag; the ingenue is just shy of womanhood; sporting the androgynous, hipless look, she can't fill out a training bra.

Theater Rhino's bare-bones set reinforces the duality; lights change the backdrop from tacky fluorescent pink to sacrificial red. Chicklet's inner personalities are aggressive, sexual, and world-wise, suggesting that in 1962, pigtails and teen naivete were a repressive construct. Keeping Chicklet down is a Mommie Dearest-esque matriarch who beats her with a rubber glove when she asks for a surfboard to cavort with the boys. In the end, author Charles Busch gives Chicklet mental health and a date to the luau, but only after spiking the genre of innocent teen summers with a fifth of filth.

The play is giddy, simple, and deliciously twisted, and I've seen this Sybil-meets-Beach Blanket Bingo melange so crisp that it transcended the inherent vapidity of its source material. Unfortunately, director Richard Ginsberg hasn't taken the script as far as it can go. He lists respectable experience in the vocation of director in the playbill, but there are paint-by-numbers basics that haven't been mastered. The show suffers either from uneven casting or from Ginsberg's not having drawn consistent performances out of the players. Discipline is a director's toughest job -- it's rough telling a guy he's stiffer than the surfboard he's supposed to be riding. Three solid performances lead the show -- Chicklet (Jason Scott Buro), her mother (Alison Lustbader), and her best friend, Berdine (Diana Brown) -- but the rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Buro and Brown are marvelous as friends by convenience, geek girls thrown together because the boys passed them over. Berdine's a pubescent intellectual with a Schopenhauer fetish, Chicklet a half-wit tomboy. Their performances are energetic and exaggerated, two qualities that separate them from the other talent as if subjected to a centrifuge. As Marvel Ann, Deena Davenport is a shrewd man-trap who expects to be wed once she's put out for boyfriend Star Cat, but her incidental character isn't around enough to contribute much.

Irregular pacing is Psycho Beach Party's other affliction. In the opening scenes, cues drag like bridge traffic, and the cast loiters around the stage. There's no directed movement, just the conversational shuffle seen at parties. Flirtation is written into every scene, but the magnetism you'd expect from body-conscious beach kids never materializes (with the exception of bulging Flynn De Marco as surf-stud Kanaka). Emerging homosexuals Yo Yo and Provoloney seem reluctant to look at each other, let alone touch in their seduction scene. The second act explodes like a hypodermic of hype was administered during the intermission. Everyone hits his or her mark, and there's choreography and song (well, a lip-sync to a Sinatra tune), but the action is a too-late glimpse at the play's potential.

-- Julie Chase

No Mercy. By Constance Congdon. Directed by Larry Biederman. Starring John Robb, Neva Hutchinson, and Peter Siiteri. Presented by the Encore Theater Company at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), June 28-July 26. Call 439-2327.

When Robert Oppenheimer watched the first atom bomb explode, the words in his mind (he later said) were from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds." This has the tang of a prepared statement, and I stop short of believing Oppenheimer dwelled on Hindu scripture at the crucial moment, partly because the physicists involved with the bomb were all half-worried that the explosion might set the atmosphere on fire, by starting a nuclear chain reaction with every available atom. The Trinity test proved to Oppenheimer that he wasn't yet become the shatterer of our world, which must have been a huge relief.

Constance Congdon's No Mercy takes Oppenheimer's soundbite as a motto, reverently enough, and braids a story about the explosion in New Mexico with tales about a young soldier at the test site, a televangelist, a stillborn child, and an old guitar player. Since the guitarist is the soldier 40 years later, the play's time frame is slippery; the scenes shift without warning between 1945 and 1985, and Oppenheimer himself is lost in time. "Nonlinear" is one way to describe the play, but "orbital" is a little more like it. The scenes whirl around the event of the bomb with a clever logic but without suspense. A military couple fret over the birth of their baby, the televangelist prattles about "rapture," the guitarist sings Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light," and Time itself is exploded; but it all fits together in a stilted way because none of the characters has a very urgent story.

Peter Siiteri plays Oppenheimer, the enigmatic genius going off his clock on the eve of his world-changing explosion. His best scene has him sitting under the bomb at night, talking to the young guitarist, Ray Layton, about their place in history. At this point, Layton is still the young, enthusiastic soldier who's about to have his eye burned by radiation from the test. Siiteri does a nice job here of seeming both crazy and lucid, delivering a good speech about the Bhagavad Gita; but otherwise he drifts in and out of character the way Oppenheimer moves in and out of time. The one really urgent character is the old Ray Layton, a rickety, washed-up country singer, played with an electric intensity by John Robb. The old Ray wears a white patch over his burned eye and has a strange enthusiasm for the sharp-dressed televangelist, Jackie, because he likes her message about rapture. When he sings a gravelly hymn on her Bible show he gets accosted on the air by a pregnant military wife who wants him to lay hands on her belly. This woman, Jane, is played without real conviction by Lisa Steindler. Her whole story seems forced, in fact, both by Steindler and the script; and when her miscarriage seems to coincide with the test explosion in the desert -- thanks to the loose time frame -- you get the idea that all the orbiting scenes are trying to cobble together some impression of Apocalypse (that enticing Cold War cliche), but it's not very compelling.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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