Friday, April 22, 2016

"The Untamed Stage"

The Untamed Stage
Scrumbly Koldewyn
With Additional Material by Terance Bennan, Damien Chacona, Cab Covay, Andy Wegner, Martin Worman, and Alex Kinney

Scrumbly Koldewyn
“You are here to see things you haven’t seen,
And feel things you haven’t felt.”

And thus are we greeted in a café setting reminiscent of an underground Berlin kabarett during those sultry and sensuous years between the World Wars when Berlin flourished, even exploded, in expressions of political, social, and sexual boundary busting.  From such smoky, crowded corners were birthed entire movements of new thought and art; but from their stages, pianos, and small bands erupted music that swept the city, continent, and the world (Hollander, Kurt Weill, Spliansky) and are remembered in later voices like Marlene Dietrich.  San Francisco-treasured composer and original Cockettes member, Scrumbly Koldewyn, returns to those too-few years of new forms of music that immolated and celebrated Berliners’ experiments in gender-bending, women’s newfound freedoms, openly gay expression, and every sort of previously no-no behavior imaginable.  In a world premiere production at Thrillpeddlers, he and a cast of enthusiastic entertainers of all shapes, ages, colors, and sexes (and in-between sexes) present his newly written The Untamed Stage, with music that reflects the period and is all originally conceived by the beloved composer himself.

The Cast of "The Untamed Stage"
Enhanced with a small stage and tables with cutout patrons in tails and others who actually live and breath, the first half is a series of variety acts entitled “The Untamed Stage Kabarett.”  With a strong, welcoming voice that is not afraid to belt when needed, Zelda Koznofski as our evening’s MC sings a rousing “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” a city where “Everyone’s a sinner ... We don’t have a sense of guilt.”  She will continue to come in and out the entire first act and when singing, is always a kick-in-the-pants for the show’s energy level.

Steven Satyricon & David Bicha
The strong beginning continues and builds in excellent vocals for the next couple of numbers as two of the opening’s back-ups return for solo spotlights.  Kim Larsen, in long white drag dress, sings “No One Is Looking,” a song that is one of several that encourage raucous, even raunchy behavior but one that also comes with a warning of what may lie ahead for Germany.  “So go ahead and do it, do it before it’s too late,” she cautions, looking one by one at each audience member.  With a manacled eye, wide yellow tie knotted in daring manner, and his pin-striped three-piece suit, David Bicha follows, bringing his strong voice and wild-eyed expressions to remind us that these are daring times where all is up for grabs in “Herr and Frau Anstatt.”  “They married as man and wife and at some point they traded,” he croons mischievously.

At this point, audience members are regularly hooting and stomping feet in delighted approval after each number.  Unfortunately, efforts to bring comic bits into this kabarett never match the quality of the music itself, either in the writing or the delivery.  A rather long, crude skit between an Italian father and son who are cleaning a canvassed, life-size toy for men’s sexual pleasure falls flat and deflates for a while the show’s energy, taking a few numbers to recover.  Other attempts of staged humor (like a on-and-off, wandering juggler) also do little to enhance the evening.

But as the act’s numbers continue, often with the deliciously dirty lyrics and ass-showing antics Thrillpeddlers’ audiences have come to expect, those in the seats and couches of the small theater soon get fully back into the mood of a Berlin nightclub.  Highlights include one of the evening’s best numbers when Zelda Koznofski, Crystal Why, and Bruna Palmeiro knock it out of the park in “How Much Longer,” with three diva voices giving it all they got and singing, “How much longer will we endure it? ... When will the day come women are free?”  Vying as the best voice and overall performer of the show, Crystal Why in her fabulous dress of black and white, metallic-shiny squares returns with Jason Wade and Steven Satyricon to belt a song (“Too Decadent for You”) hilariously detailing their boredom with once-tried sexual kinks and fetishes.  Again, with some premonition of what is historically to come, “We’ve slipped so far down the slippery edge, there’s no place to go,” the trio sings. 

In long, silvery gown hugging his tall, slender body, the always satisfying Noah Haydon closes the kabarett half of the night with a haunting “Waiting,” unnerving for us who know what probably happened to many of the performers and patrons of those Berlin venues.  In quiet voice, the drag performer sings, “We are all waiting for the next crowded train.”

The Brown Shorts
While Act One is full of sexual explicitness, Act Two crosses the borders into erotic fantasies, and some might way downright sexual perversion (which may or may not be a good thing, according to one’s tolerance level for such tongue-in-cheek, XXX material).  “The German Thing to Do – or How a Cow Changes History” is a musical parody of the threats already appearing in the German ‘20s of those who espoused Aryan superiority, in this case a group of “Brown Shorts” (instead of the actual ‘Brown Shirts’), all wearing aprons outlined as lederhosen.  Their plans to inject worthy blonde-headed youth with a serum to make them super-studs for Germany is thwarted by a lone cow (played with daring, body exposure by Bruna Palmeiro), whose udders soon take on phallic proportions and new ways of being milked.  The musical numbers of this half overall never take off in ways those in the first half do until we get to the near end.  A full-cast (with the miracle cow in center) “Divine Bovine” is a wonderful, farcical, full-voiced “We Are the World” type of number, with each person taking a moment vocally to shine in solo, alternated with everyone else swaying and singing, “Tune into the world ... Ride the waves of existence.”  This is quickly followed by a foot-tapping, well-chorused reprise of “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” bringing everyone back into the mood of the first act and into both the joys and upcoming sadness of that brief reprise from a Kaiser’s and a Fueher’s repression.

As is always the case, costume rule supreme in a Thrillpeddler’s production, and Glenn Krumbholz delivers yet again an array of color, sparkle, and risqué that smacks of fun and flair.  James Blackwood’s simple design puts us in the dusky mood of a Berlin kabarett, and Nicolas Torre provides the needed lighting for just the right effects.  Hair is a big deal for Thrillpeddler performers, and Flynn DeMarco dons the heads with proper glamour.

Bravo to Scrumbly Koldewyn and Thrillpeddlers for another premiere like none other in San Francisco or anywhere else.  While not totally successful in all its parts, the sum is totally worthwhile and celebrates in Thrillpeddler-expected style the bold and bawdy music of a time when people were just trying to fight for individual rights against a rising tide of hellacious hatred.

Rating; 3 E

The Untamed Tide continues at Thrillpeddlers’ The Hypnodrome, 575 10th Street, San Francisco through May 28, 2016.  Tickets are available at or by calling 415-377-4202.

Photos by David Allen Studios

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