Monday, May 18, 2009

Theater review: 'Three on a Party'

Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
Monday, May 18, 2009

Three on a Party: "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" by Gertrude Stein, directed by Delia MacDougall; "Two on a Party" by Tennessee Williams and "Suddenly Home" by Armistead Maupin, directed by John Fisher. With JoAnne Winter, Sheila Balter, Ryan Tasker and Brendan Godfrey. (Through June 7. Theatre Rhinoceros and Word for Word, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Two hours, 30 minutes. Tickets: $15-$35. Call (415) 861-5079 or go to

Tennessee Williams writes openly about "queen" cruising in the closeted '50s, Armistead Maupin addresses marital issues during the AIDS pandemic and Gertrude Stein gives "gay" its modern connotation at the dawn of the 20th century in "Three on a Party," which opened Saturday at Theatre Rhinoceros. A long but entertaining history of a century of homosexuality in America comes to life in the three short stories onstage.

In collaboration between Word for Word, the company that performs works of literature as if they were plays, and Theatre Rhino, the stories are performed verbatim on simple sets with inventive stagings by Word veteran Delia MacDougall and Rhino Artistic Director John Fisher.

Stein's "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene," which opens the evening, is a giddy 20 minutes of wild word play through the early 20th century world of expats seeking cultural freedoms in the more tolerant climes of Europe. Word co-founder JoAnne Winter is the shy and unadventurous singer Helen Furr, who immerses herself in a "quite regularly gay" life with Sheila Balter's more outgoing Miss Skeene in an unnamed city that MacDougall makes seem a lot like Paris.

As Stein plays endless variations on "gay" and "regular" and Winter's Furr blossoms in decadent sensuality, it's hard to escape the conviction that the Bay Area's own Stein had redefined the meaning of "gay" as early as 1910 (or 1922, when the story was published).

Williams' "Two on a Party," by far the longest piece, explores a more domestic form of sexual tourism in the symbiotic cruising relationship of Billy - a gay writer, coasting on his royalties until he has to get back to work - and Cora, a straight, blowsy barfly who thrives on one-night stands. Fisher's deft direction brings out the growing bond between Ryan Tasker's very Williams-like Billy and Winter's ever-more empathetic Cora.

Taken with Stein's piece, the 70-minute "Two" makes for a rather long first act. As fine as Williams' prose is, the story begins to seem overly drawn out, unnecessarily extended by some of Fisher's set changes. But it's a remarkable document, published in '54, when Williams had to deal with homoerotic material much less explicitly onstage, not to mention a touching story very well performed.

Maupin's "Suddenly Home," written in '90, brings the evening home to humor, the present and San Francisco. A lightly satiric and affecting slice of life in the "Tales of the City" mode - and the only story whose author was present for the opening - it depicts a conflicted woman (a luminous Balter) seeking and finding a marital model in the relationship between her brother (Brendan Godfrey) and his HIV-positive lover (Tasker). Fisher's warm and funny staging closes the evening on a gently positive note.

E-mail Robert Hurwitt at

This article appeared on page E - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Friday, May 15, 2009

Set Sail through the Greek Islands with a Special Guest Host

Friday, May 15th, 2009

Source Events continues the tradition of creating inspiring gay adventures for the Mind, Body & Spirit. And this summer, Source Events will have a special guest on board…

“We are excited to announce world-renowned author ARMISTEAD MAUPIN will be the special guest host aboard our Greek Islands Cruise on the Star Clipper this summer,” says Craig Smith, President of Source Events. Maupin is the author of nine novels, including the seven-volume Tales of the City series as well as Maybe the Moon, The Night Listener and, most recently, Michael Tolliver Lives.

Source Events travelers desire great destinations on intimate ships along with a variety of activities. This summer’s Star Clipper voyage sets sail amongst the Greek islands - including Mykonos and Santorini. The ship features wellness activities, great music, and special entertainment. “Armistead Maupin will host an incredible evening, and we can’t think of a more magical storyteller from our community to enchant us with both real-life and fictional tales,” says Smith.

To experience the Greek Islands by sea on a tall sailing ship is extraordinary. Sparkling blue waters, hidden coves and secluded beaches make the Greek Islands the perfect playground for a week of fun, exploration and celebration.

Greek Islands Cruise - September 5-12, 2009 aboard the S.V. Star Clipper.
Limited availability. Mention for a special limited offer - - 888-768-7238.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Stein, Williams and Maupin combine for 'Party'

Chad Jones, Special to The Chronicle
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Collaborating for the first time, Word for Word, the company that turns short fiction into fully produced theater without altering a word of the original, and Theatre Rhinoceros, the country's oldest continuously running gay and lesbian theater, are throwing a "Party."

The guests of honor are Gertrude Stein, Tennessee Williams and Armistead Maupin. Each member of this unlikely trio will have short stories performed on the Rhino stage in an evening dubbed "Three on a Party."

Stein's "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" from the early 20th century uses the word "gay" like a metronome, and Williams' "Two on a Party" from the 1950s follows high-flying Cora and her pal Billy cavorting and imbibing their way up and down the Eastern seaboard.

Perhaps the most surprising member of the trio is Maupin. The San Francisco writer, celebrated for his "Tales of the City" books, isn't known for his short fiction. His "Suddenly Home," written in the late '80s for a Harold Prince-directed opera that was never produced, is about Tess, a Midwestern wife whose marriage is on the rocks. She visits her gay brother and his partner in San Francisco and learns what a real marriage is supposed to be.

"After the dense poetry of Stein and the dramatic poetry of Williams, Armistead's work just flows like silk, like butter from the lips," says Rhino Artistic Director John Fisher, who is directing the piece. "He writes dialogue like nobody's business. He's up there with Neil Simon, and I say that with the utmost respect."

JoAnne Winter, the artistic director of Word for Word, is one of four actors performing in the three plays and has to navigate the abstract wordplay of Stein (directed by Delia MacDougall) and the multilayered prose of Williams (also directed by Fisher).

"Then we get to the Maupin, and we can just relax and play the story," Winter says. "He's so adept at writing comic lines, but under the light surface there's real conflict. This was the late '80s in San Francisco, when the city was living with the specter of AIDS. The story doesn't focus in on that, but we're seeing people learning how to survive with the monster at their heel."

Without trying, Fisher and Winter agree, they ended up selecting three stories that comment on the hot topic of gay marriage. From Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene of the Stein story to the platonic bond between Billy, a gay man, and Cora, a straight woman, in the Williams to Will and Jamie, the lovers in the Maupin, each relationship defies convention and societal norms.

"It's interesting to me," Fisher says, "that just by looking at three American writers at the beginning, middle and end of the century, you find an arc that brings us to where we are now, waiting for a decision on Proposition 8."

Three on a Party: Through June 7. Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. $20-$35. (415) 861-5079,

Special event: Armistead Maupin will appear onstage with Theatre Rhino Artistic Director John Fisher for "An Evening with Armistead Maupin," 7 p.m. May 17. $30-$50.

E-mail Chad Jones at

This article appeared on page E - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Happy Birthday, Armistead!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Off the page & onto the stage

by Richard Dodds

From page to stage is the literal mission of Word for Word, a theater company that, for 16 years, has created highly regarded theatrical experiences from published prose while still managing to include every word authors have written. For the first time, Word for Word and Theatre Rhino are collaborating on a production that will provide flesh-and-blood life to short stories by Gertrude Stein, Tennessee Williams, and Armistead Maupin.

Three on a Party, opening May 16, takes its name from the Williams short story "Two on a Party" that Rhino Artistic Director John Fisher is staging. First published in 1954, "Two on a Party" focuses on barflies Cora and Bill, who form a bond based on their mutual lust for men.

Fisher is also directing Maupin's "Suddenly Home," a short story originally written in 1990 for the musical Hearts Desire. It's the story of the romantically confused Tess, who looks to her brother and his boyfriend for guidance. Maupin, best known for his Tales of the City books, will take to the stage for a conversation with Fisher following the May 17 performance.

Delia MacDougall, a charter member of Word for Word, is directing Stein's "Miss Furr and Miss Skeen." Written around 1910 and published in 1922, it's a fictionalized portrait of artists Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire and their intimate relationship. It is often cited as one of the first published coming-out stories, as well as, perhaps, the first published use of the word "gay" in reference to same-sex relationships. There will be a post-show discussion with Stein expert Hans Gallas following the May 22 performance.

Three on a Party will run through June 7 at Theatre Rhino. Call 861-5079 or go to