Ripe with Follies 

When San Jose failed him, John Bisceglie moved his theatrical revue to follies-filled San Francisco.

Playwright John Bisceglie got into the Follies racket in the 1990s with San Jose Follies and San Jose Follies Strikes Back, two goofy musical revues that dredged up a lot of little-known San Jose folklore, made fun of city landmarks, and spent a lot of time joking about the blandness of San Jose. Which, Bisceglie finally realized, was precisely what made the show kind of tiresome. San Jose just didn't lend itself to follies the way other cities did — namely, its more glamorous cousin up the Peninsula. There was only so much humor you could ring out of jokes that skewered Great America and the Light Tower. So this year Bisceglie moved into more fertile terrain. His new production, SF Follies, offers a whole new set of japes within a lively musical cabaret. The fifteen-person cast plows through three centuries of San Francisco history in about ninety minutes, belting pop tunes from the '60s and '70s (with the lyrics slightly tweaked), and mocking everyone from Father Serra to Gavin Newsom. For Bisceglie, an online marketer who probably won't quit his day job any time soon, this play is, undoubtedly, a tour de force.

Take that with a grain of salt. Probably the best thing about SF Follies is the costumes, which are quite stunning. Culled from thrift stores or painstakingly sewn by Bisceglie's merry band of clothiers, they include flashy boas, bird plumage, rhinestones, sequins, antebellum dresses with bustles, intricate lace detailing, a Swan Lake ballet tutu made to look like a dead swan, and big Victorian hats that apparently began with cardboard scaffolding. The Ohlone tribe members who emerge in the play's opening wear flapper dresses. The Beat poets don matching black turtlenecks and berets. A homeless woman with a shopping cart is dressed as a mermaid. Members of the new "green" generation lower their carbon footprint with dresses made of newspapers and recycled cardboard. Bisceglie directed the costume design team and spends a large chunk of his program notes describing their whole process of scavenging raw materials and sewing them together. It's where the bulk of his creativity lies.

Aesthetic pleasures notwithstanding, the play offers a good-times romp through centuries of textbook history and urban legend, though roughly half of it takes place within the last twenty years. Most of Bisceglie's jokes fall in the cornball realm and only occasionally warrant a real eye-roll — like the Ohlone-Spaniard duet about genocide, sung to the tune of The Brady Bunch, or the moment when two actors board a BART train and hear a fusillade of bullets in the background. But a lot of the script is genuinely — surprisingly — funny. After the assassination of Harvey Milk, a newly empowered Diane Feinstein emerges in Barbarella garb. Unsure if she's ready to manhandle an entire city while furthering her political ambitions, she recruits superhero cohorts Barbara B. and Nancy P. to form a Charlie's Angels-type corps. Naturally, a large swath of the script goes to the worthy cause of lampooning Mayor Gavin Newsom, played by actor Brett Hammon as the ultimate tool. He presides over an ill-fated gay marriage in City Hall, at which two actors march down the aisle singing Going to the chapel and we're/sorta gonna get maaaarrried. Bisceglie also ridicules the mayor's controversial "Care Not Cash" 2002 ballot measure, which slashed General Assistance payments to San Francisco's homeless. In what's probably the only (sorta) poignant moment of SF Follies, actress Jujuana Sharon Williams sings, pleadingly, for "Cash not Care," dressed in a radiant mermaid costume.

There's no doubt that John Bisceglie loves San Francisco. Amidst all the irreverent satire he includes a gorgeous black-and-white video montage with rare archival footage. He also genuflects to all the noteworthy icons: Herb Caen, Patty Hearst, Bill Graham, the Brown Twins, the Sutro Tower, and KOFY TV 20. The references never get too hip or obscure (Dave Eggers and all his enterprises remain absent, thankfully, as does Frank Chu "the twelve galaxies guy"), and there are a few surprising holes. (What about the Fillmore? The SF Giants? Why do the Guardian sex ads get a bigger nod than ex-Mayor Willie Brown?) Still, it's pretty San Francisco-centric, and, aside from a chorus-line number about high real estate prices, most jokes wouldn't make sense to a foreigner. (Unless you've suffered through the agonizing, horribly expensive, time-consuming experience of having your car towed in San Francisco, you probably won't understand why so much stage time gets devoted to the song-and-dance about DPT). Also, some of the material has a short expiration date — any reference to the Chronicle might have a completely different connotation six months from now. But overall Bisceglie comes up with a fun, glitzy, and fairly comprehensive production that, with a few revisions, could survive into next year.


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