Night Crawler

The German Invasion
Since last Valentine's Day, New Yorkers have basked in the off-color delights of the off-Broadway glam-rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the bawdy and sometimes wrenching story of a German transsexual with great songs and horrible luck. Despite our city's open fondness for luscious androgyny and glitter-festooned guitar players, there are no immediate plans to bring Hedwig to San Francisco (we may have to settle for the movie).

Thankfully, we always have "Trannyshack" (and the technology to bring us there, despite flu or high water). Looking like a preternatural body-double, "Trannyshack" producer Heklina steps out onto the cramped stage at the Stud wearing a dramatically feathered platinum-blond "Hedwig" wig, platform boots, and eye shadow flashy enough to direct air traffic. Heklina has just returned from the Big Apple, where she beheld Hedwig for a second time after making a guest appearance on Ricki Lake, along with "Trannyshack" regulars Portia and Johnny Kat. (Look for the "I'm a queen in drag and my girlfriend's a hag" makeover episode during sweeps week.) Heklina is in high spirits.

"There's just no problem in the world a good makeover can't solve," she tells the rapt crowd. "You can be suicidal after your house just burnt down and your mother is dying in the hospital, but if you get a good makeover, everything is going to be OK. Am I right?" Her audience and, no doubt, Hedwig couldn't agree more.

Co-host Kennedy enters, to the strains of "Pretty Things" by David Bowie, wearing a fur-collared cape and a rhinestone tiara and leading a young "dog boy" on a leash. The stage show kicks off a lip-syncing tribute to the style and songwriting of the glam-rock era, culminating in a Hedwig look-alike contest among Kennedy, Portia, Peaches Christ, Adrian Roberts, and Pippi Lovestocking. Judges Jeff Newton from Atlantic Records and his boyfriend, actor Guillermo Diaz -- from Party Girl and 200 Cigarettes -- select Portia to win the wig off of Heklina's head and a chance to fly back to New York to see the Hedwig production one more time. She's thrilled in a bored and lovely glam-rock sort of way. Heklina distributes several boxes of newly released Hedwig soundtracks to the crowd, then makes a proposal: "Show us your dick and I'll give you a T-shirt."

A slender tattooed man jumps onstage and drops his boxers, revealing a dainty little ring hanging behind his balls. Heklina takes a handful before handing over the new apparel. "What next? How 'bout tits?" she asks. A young woman jumps onstage, pulls off her faux fur, and flashes her bare breasts for a Hedwig shirt. Heklina is pleased. "You people will do anything," she says with a self-satisfied laugh. If Hedwig Schmidt were a corporal glam rocker, he'd be proud: His record release party possessed all the desirable accouterments -- sex, music, decadence, irreverence, fabulous shoes. The only thing missing was a strong German accent.

Set in Berlin during the Weimar era -- that vital pocket of time between World Wars when German theaters erupted with newfound sexual, political, and creative freedom -- Trude Hesterberg's Die Wilde BYhne was home to some of the country's finest cabaret writers, including Freidrich Hollaender, Misha Spoliansky, and Bertolt Brecht. As the vampy sparkle of glam is recycled in New York and SOMA, Scrumbly Koldewyn, a former Cockette, re-creates the "Untamed Stage" in North Beach, with velvety salaciousness that predates Bowie by more than three-quarters of a century. The spacious 7th Note Showclub glitters with candlelight as a blind man in a suit shuffles through the crowd jingling a can of change. Folks laugh and clink highballs filled with bourbon, ignoring him until he stumbles into their table. A few people giggle and drop coins into his cup, a few threaten him under their breaths, demanding the "fourth wall."

The lights dim and Beni Ocker, a sincere-faced young man with a soft accent from the Black Forest of Germany, steps onstage beneath a crooked windowpane. He is joined by a trio of musicians headed by Koldewyn at the piano. Ocker's patter is jubilant, reminiscent of Ziegfeld Follies-style entertaining. The light is low and red in an attempt to make the venue intimate and somewhat disreputable-looking. Ocker begins his introduction and the band picks up a lilting melody, but before they can continue, David Bicha, the blind man, leaps up and launches into "It's All a Swindle," a raucous song that sets the stage with a chorus of whores, corrupt cops, politicians, and pressmen singing, "Grandma is a lying thief."

Bicha gives way to Arturo Galster performing a libidinous little ditty titled "They Call Me Naughty Lola" dressed as Marlene Dietrich in a peroxide wig, shiny red crinoline, corset, and garters; Cindy Goldfield appears in her underthings as an irrepressible chorus-line dancer who jiggles her way out of the Marie Von Der Haller Review and into our hearts; Bob Ernst and Kim Fowler present a linguistically dexterous tribute to dadaist poet Kurt Schwitters; Leigh Crow convinces men in the audience to hide their wallets when she sings "I'm a Vamp"; Bicha blurs the tenuous lines of sexuality in Spoliansky's "Masculine-Feminine"; Ocker eats razor blades, balances on ladders, and twirls fire in an ill-concealing jockstrap; and when we think we've seen it all, Erin-Kate Whitcomb appears in the middle of the audience -- a bored, disenchanted intellectual in shirt-sleeves who claims to have teethed on opium as a baby in Hollaender's "Shag Tobacco." Of all the evening's composers, it is Hollaender who follows me into the San Francisco street: "I'm a perverted, filthy swine/ So completely vice ridden/ I've tried all the thrills that are hidden/ There's nothing new under the sun/ There's nothing new I haven't done."

Draped in a coat of black ostrich feathers on top of flowing silk pants cinched with a large rhinestone belt, German cabaret star Tim Fischer steps onto the tiny stage at Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint like a fading starlet out of a Tennessee Williams play. His heavily powdered cheeks and reddened mouth blanch in the severe spotlight before a fall of thick brown hair casts a softening shadow. The mostly German-speaking crowd leans forward in anticipation as the shorn heads of pianist Thomas Doerschel and violinist Hans Jehle bend over their sheet music. The lights dim to red filters and in the microsecond before Fischer's voice pours over the classic Viennese cabaret song "Just a Gigolo," the white-haired couple next to me hold their breath. They know.

With his eyes half-lidded, Fischer transports the tiny packed house back to a cobblestoned city filled with the dark, lurking melodies of Kurt Weill and the insolent comic drama of Georg Kreisler. This is not camp, parody, or deferential re-creation, this is the genuine article. Fischer's voice slips through the "Alabama Song" into "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire," turning for comic relief to "Chuck Out the Men" and "Piss on Me." Through it all, he is stately and exquisite, a showperson of remarkable talent and timing, transported from an era overabundant with such things. At the end of Fischer's set, before the three encores and standing ovation, he descends into "Vedrai, Vedrai," and when he's done, I am surprised to find tears staining my cheeks. I am pleased to report there are still things hidden under the sun.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor

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