A series of slide projections cycling through a gamut of theater posters greets audiences taking their seats at Theatre Rhinoceros's 30th season opener. Ranging in design from the openly trashy to the quietly tony, many of these posters offer eye-catching portions of skin and equally intriguing titles: Cocksucker: A Love Story, Deporting the Divas, Pogey Bait, Show Ho, Intimate Details, Barebacking, and Hillbillies on the Moon. It adds up to a hefty if scantily clad body of work that owes its existence to a good extent to the advent of Theatre Rhinoceros. Begun in 1977 by Alan Estes in a SoMa leather bar with a production of Doric Wilson's The West Street Gang, the Rhino today is the longest-running LGBT theater in the country.
Thirty years like these call for a moment of reflection, and the Rhino's lasts a brisk and enjoyable 70 minutes. Conceived and directed by John Fisher, who became artistic director in 2002, Theatre Rhinoceros: The First Thirty Years takes a jaunty look back at a raucous, at times traumatic, but overall remarkable theatrical career intimately tied to the social and political history of the queer community. While making no attempt to be exhaustive, or exhausting, Fisher's swift, celebratory pastiche (with dramaturgy by actor and associate artistic director Matt Weimer) neatly suggests the range of artistic output and the sweep of events and personalities that have gone into defining the theater and its times.
The bulk of the show comprises a choice selection of scenes and songs from productions past (with some original compositions and arrangements by Don Seaver and snazzy choreography by Angeline Young), put on by a capable five-person ensemble, all but one veterans of previous Rhino shows. Sporadically introduced by Fisher who as MC strikes the right note at once, with a deadpan motorized entrance onto a stage decked out (by designer John Lowe) in a shimmering red glitter curtain worthy of Cher or Merv Griffin the selections progress more or less chronologically, though the cast leads off with a rendition of "Dirty Dreams of a Clean-Cut Kid," from the musical of the same name by lyricist Henry Mach and composer Paul Katz, which was a hit for the Rhino in 1990. It's an apt piece to introduce part one of the show, "Coming Out/Living Out," the first of four sections charting the development of the theater and its audience.
Other highlights include a scene from Theresa Carilli's Dolores Street, an early lesbian-themed play that marked the Rhino's (at the time somewhat controversial) turn to more inclusive queer programming. It's a still tart and funny comedy about the relationships in a young lesbian household in San Francisco, at least judging by the scene expertly reproduced by Laurie Bushman and Alice Pencavel.
The live sequences come interspersed with videotaped interviews of Rhino founders and associates, including Lanny Baugniet, P.A. Cooley, Donna Davis, and Tom Ammiano. The cast also reads excerpts from letters to the theater from subscribers and some well-known playwrights, most offering praise and thanks, others caviling at the quality of a specific production, expressing indignation over liberties taken with a script, or offering resistance to the changes in programming that opened the stage to lesbian themes and, eventually, many other queer voices. (It's indicative of how far things have come that a letter like this last one, which pointed to once serious divisions in the larger gay community, elicited only comfortable laughter from the opening night's audience.)
In part two, "AIDS," the ensemble re-creates highlights from the Rhino's historic long-running revue, The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival.