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 www.therhino.org.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page E - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle