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Warrior Worship

Wednesday, Oct 20 1999
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Warrior Worship
Not since Star Trek has a television show inspired the cult-like veneration enjoyed by Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Fans rattle off episode titles like athletes quoting batting averages; they discuss character development with the same attention to detail usually afforded fine wines and rare china; they ritualize their experience - surrounded by similarly-minded converts, or alone, hidden away from the prying eyes of unbelievers - and set aside time each week to contemplate the allegories strewn throughout their small-screen stories. In 1997, for the first time in a decade, the Star Trek empire lost dominion over the syndicated-drama charts, and, as the mythic stars of ancient Greece eclipsed those of science fiction, Hercules fan clubs developed, Xena secret societies formed, and conventions were booked across the country for both. Of the two shows produced by Pacific Renaissance, Xena seems the more highly debated and devotional, at least in our town; although balanced by irreverence, raillery, and self-parody, the show's complicated familial ties, dark dalliances, and copious ass-kicking strikes a chord with fans who either admire or desire the show's strong, female leads.

For those behind the curve, Xena (played by New Zealand's statuesque, icy-eyed, raven-haired knock-out Lucy Lawless) was born in Amphipolis some time between, say, 1500 BC and 129 AD (see later historical breakdown). Her real father may or may not have been Ares the god of war (played by the rippling Kiwi hunk Kevin Smith on both Hercules and Xena), but her human father is said to have deserted the family before her birth or been killed by her mother to prevent sure infanticide. (Regardless of the circumstance, this desertion, coupled with that of Xena's first fiancee, who gave up marital bliss to become a diabolical warlord, no doubt abetted Xena's pivotal distrust of men and fear of intimacy.) Somewhere along the line, Xena's hometown was ravaged by marauders, and she defended it alongside her brothers - two or three - and in order to safeguard the town from further attacks, she set about conquering the surrounding region. Consumed by power and bloodlust, and enjoying "relations" with some equally sadistic characters, Xena did not awake from her merciless stupor until her own men attacked her for saving the life of a baby. Struggling to subdue her dark impulses, Xena took to the open road at the beginning of the show as an act of contrition, determined to use her skills only for good.

Enter Gabrielle (played by pert, blonde Texan Reneé O'Connor) who deserted her betrothed to chronicle Xena's adventures in the tradition of the great bards of her time (more or less). Aside from her role as biographer and hesitant comrade in arms, Gabrielle is Xena's calming influence, an estrogen-rich, somewhat naîve, optimistic humanitarian who gently curtails Xena's more merciless rages.

So, what about the subtext?

According to Malibu-based Whoosh! -- journal for the International Association of Xena Studies -- within the first two seasons, there were no less than six kisses between Lawless and O'Connor, two of them mouth-to-mouth. There are allusions to the roles of "warrior" women within a patriarchal society and hints, according to some, at sado-masochist fixations. (See Xena's steamy conflict with Cyane in "Adventures in the Sin Trade," or her penchant for the villainous Draco in "A Comedy of Eros.")

Then there are the leather unmentionables.

"I think the show approaches real problems with humor and imagination," says 43-year old fan Kath Dudek, whose fur cloak, broad sword, chain mail, and helmet inadvertently draw passersby up the steps of the Nob Hill Masonic Center into San Francisco's annual Official Hercules and Xena Convention. "Friendship is not always easy to maintain, tragedy can happen in spite of our best intentions, and anyone can be a warrior. Xena provides a great way to discuss issues with teenagers who are beginning to search for their own identity." Besides being a Xena fan, Dudek teaches novice combat techniques for the Society for Creative Anachronism, a 35-year-old historical group that hosts weekly battles in Golden Gate Park and boasts a great number of Xena/Hercules fans.

Never mind that Xena has Homer and Euripedes, who lived nearly 300 years apart, competing in "Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards"; or that Hippocrates (460 BC) and Galen (129 AD) cross paths in "Is There a Doctor in the House;" or that the Trojan War and Sophocles are mentioned as current affairs, despite a 700-year difference in time; or that Xena has had flings with both Julius Caesar, who died in 44 BC, and Hercules, who died around 1250 BC.

"The stories are great," says Dudek, "and it's funny. This is a town that loves its camp."

"One look at Kevin Smith should tell you why I am a fan," says 40-year-old Clemens resident and Smith fan club member Lanna King.

Onstage, Smith struts in front of a podium, his well-formed body accentuated by clinging work-out pants and a tight white T-shirt.

"Since I've become famous, I've dropped all my old friends, stopped calling my family, and cut down good acquaintances in the middle of the street," jokes Smith in his laid-back, good-natured Kiwi accent. "Actually, being somewhat famous, I have to conduct myself in a certain way. Normally, I'm a swine, but I don't have the luxury of venting my spleen any time I like. As soon as my television career is through, I'm going to revert back to the A-hole I really am."

The huge crowd laughs, and several woman in the audience scream. Hundreds of cameras flash in the aisles. Unlike her home, where King must downplay her obsession among friends and family who find it childish, the convention is filled with people whose interest is at least as great as her own. During the two-day visit, King meets tall, dark Minneapolis resident Renee Indehar; together they enter and win the costume contest as Xena and Gabrielle.

"We thought we'd have more power as a team," says King.

"The show's all about teamwork," adds Indehar, who admits that watching a show that has a lead actress to whom you bear a striking similarity has its perks. "I won free airfare out here."

In the auditorium, small, blonde-haired lovely Danielle Cormack is addressed by members of the crowd as the real Amazon Regent (an insider fact; Gabrielle has been given the title Amazon queen on the show). She is proposed to, asked for hugs, and asked to waltz. Cameras flash as she displays a gregarious charm and quick New Zealand wit and, although dressed in a peach satin gown and knee-high leather boots, jokes about fanny (it's something else in her country), beer, and knocking her kids around.

"I'm gonna give up acting and become a rock star," she says with a toss of her tawny mane. "Just holding this microphone makes me hot."

Albequerque native Phil D. Hernández claps wildly and takes notes. A founder of the Gabrielle and Joxer Romantic Society, a group dedicated to encouraging romantic love between the blonde side-kick and her doltish admirer on the show, Hernández is gathering inspiration.

"Some people think the relationship between Gabrielle and Xena should be only a lesbian one, but that's so limited," says Hernández, adjusting his silver bow tie. "Joxer loves her and, I think, if he proposes, she should accept. They would make a wonderful couple. I'm a lot like Joxer. The similarities are uncanny."

As the junior division costume contestants take the stage, Hernández applauds wildly for stocky Rachel Shing as Xena, willowy Natasha Kendall as Cleopatra, and the very poised, very small Samantha Duncan as Xena's son Solan. (As the announcer says, gender doesn't matter on this show.)

"Natasha's grown a lot since the last contest," says Hernández, giving his best Xena battle cry. "You start to recognize each other after a while."

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

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Silke Tudor

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