For kids who were born too late to experience the fabulous freaks and drag delights of San Francisco’s world-famous underground song-and-dance company the Cockettes, your moment has come to truly sample the, ahem, wares of the groundbreaking psychedelic tranny troupe. The Cockettes may be gone, but it hasn’t been forgotten - thanks to the 2002 documentary The Cockettes and, notably, Devendra Banhart’s recent bouts of bearded-lady dress-up (commemorated with a fashion spread in The New York Times Magazine). The group gave safe harbor to performance icons like Divine and Sylvester amid the show tunes, bawdy bromides, and razzle-dazzle visuals, before it splintered in 1971. So Cock-udos to S.F.’s Thrillpeddlers for giving young ‘uns a chance to glimpse the ensemble’s finest production, Pearls Over Shanghai, the way it was meant to be: live and lascivious, in all its lurid OTT beauty.
Pearls Over Shanghai was the jewel in the Cockettes’ crown - either a raging success or a roaring disaster depending on which source you favor. Regardless, the play’s opening night at N.Y.C.’s Anderson Theater in 1971 attracted such luminaries as John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal, drawn by hipster chatter to the lusty underground drag company from S.F. Still, after only two more productions, Pearls languished - until Thrillpeddlers impresario Russell Blackwood, hoping to expand his underground company’s scope beyond Grand Guignol artifacts and sex farces, contacted surviving original Cockettes Scrumbly Koldewyn (who wrote Pearls’ music), Rumi Missabu, Tahara, and Bill Bowers to fluff and revive the smarter-than-it-looks, tongue-in-cheeky tribute to Hollywood’s visions of the orient.
And PC worries aside, the current fully-staged production is a genuine, drag-out joy to behold (a semi-staged, shorter version was staged at Bleecker Street Theatre in N.Y.C. last September), starting with Missabu’s witty, winking performance as Madam Gin Sling, continuing on to Connie Champagne’s turn on what might be considered the Cockettes’ most renowned tune, “Jaded Lady,” to the glitterific makeup and acid-rock-meets-Chinese-opera costumes.
As the gussied-to-the-evil-nines Mother Fu, Blackwood delivers a show-stopping tap routine in a hysterical ensemble that should go down in underground theatrical history for its use of stuffed animals and a false eye. And as the Wobblin’ Robin Sisters, Adelola Role, Liza Bouterage, and Miss Sheldra kick out the three-part harmonies with manic, on-point flair. True, the Thrillpeddlers recycle a few of the spooky, nervous-chuckle-inducing effects from its Halloween show, and a few of the vocalists aren’t as strong as others. But the same-sex/similar-aesthetics marriage of the Thrillpeddlers’ reliable derring-do and the Cockettes’ rough ‘n’ tumbled glitter rock works wonders, giving you a gloriously chaotic spot to park your eyeballs for a smart, sex-positive, and subversive couple of hours.
Pearls Over Shanghai is performed Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. and, beginning July 26, Sun., 7 p.m. Through Aug 16. $30-$69. Hypnodrome, 575 10th St., S.F. (800) 838-3006. www.thrillpeddlers.com.