Burroughs and Shakespeare served neat, no chaser.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A man walks into a bar. Ouch! Just kidding. A man walked into a bar. He idly scoped out a handsome youth leaning against the wall (Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos Jr.) and began to sing: “I could use that, if the family jewels weren’t pawned to uncle junk…” Music swelled from the five-piece chamber orchestra in the corner of the stage: pizzicato on the violin, a bowed double bass, high-pitched urgent keys. An angular, haunting, sometimes dissonant music; just what you might expect the score for an operetta based on the semi-autobiographical William S. Burroughs II novel Queer to be.
The man onstage inhabited a familiar silhouette -- rumpled suit jacket, a wide, silk tie, soft fedora -- but rather than the reptilian demeanor of Burroughs’ legend, this representation of his protagonist Lee (Joe Wicht a.k.a. Trauma Flintstone) was both lusty and manic. He pursued the object of his desires, the diffident American Allerton (James Graham) with a single-minded frenzy, over-shadowed only by trembling bouts of junk-sickness and a burgeoning obsession with the psychotropic yage, or ayahuasca plant of South America.
Premiered in 2001, the Erling Wold operatic adaptation stuck to the text of the original pretty faithfully, the addition of Cid Pearlman’s silent balletic choreography lending the entire production the quality of an extended dream sequence. The show ended as it begins -- in an expat bar somewhere in Mexico city—the slumped character of Lee as alone as in the opening sequence, older but not wiser, his longing for Allerton unabated, them usic underscoring his solitude in mournful adagio.
Meanwhile, at the Café Royale, briefly transformed into The Boar’s Head Tavern of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V by the ever-ambitious San Francisco Theatre Pub, an adaptation of both (called The Boar's Head, natch) played to a full house on Monday night. Concentrating mainly on the scenes set in the infamous pub, The Boar’s Head tracked the coming-of-age of the king-to-be, Prince Hal (Bennett Fisher), and his relationships to the two men who shaped him most—his austere father, the king (Ted Barker), and the jocular, petty criminal, Falstaff (Paul Jennings).
With no clearly defined stage space, the actors roamed around the whole room as well as on the Mezzanine, giving their pub-set play an air of authenticity better than any spray-painted flat and borrowed barstools could ever hope to. Their inventive use of space included using the pool table as an erstwhile deathbed, and the end of the bar for, well, the end of the bar, where Falstaff called repeatedly for his cup of sack and the French princess Katherine (Larissa Archer) learned halting English, body part by body part.
At the play’s end, the newly coroneted Hal banished the lusty Falstaff from his presence for a distance of 10 miles. Despite the somewhat gloomy resonance with Lee’s downfall from the night before, it’s actually encouraging to note that the libertine spirit has been under attack for literally hundreds of years and has yet to succumb entirely to the guardians of dour morality. At the very least, we should toast its tenacity with a cup of sack.