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
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.