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

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