Promising an immersive theatrical experience featuring a cast of shipwrecked glittering drag artists in an evening of drag, dance and theater at SOMA’s OASIS gay night club, San Francisco’s Detour Dance had me intrigued and anticipating their show latest show We Build Houses Here for weeks. It is as complicated as it sounds, with numerous collaborators and artists in the mix. It is not any one thing, but many things.
It’s like Gilligan’s Island, only the wrecked vessel is a queer cruise. The washed-up castaways have individual and unique ways of coping with their new circumstances. Some recall the past, others embrace the pleasure of living outside the confines of former societal expectations and yet others envision the possibilities for a better future in this new locale. Many a queer person has landed on San Francisco’s shores and worked similarly to realize their dreams.
We meet the castaways, in their full glam fabulousness, in an opening number shoulder to shoulder on the club’s glowing runway. Together they create a small storm-tossed ship. Lip-synching to “Orinoco Flow” by Enya, they entreat us to “Sail Away” with them. Drawing us in with come-hither gazes, their luxurious body waves and head rolls create the ocean waves.
Syd Franz, left, and Melissa Lewis-Wong perform in the opening number. Photo by Robbie Sweeny
Churro Nomi, the drag persona of Director Eric Garcia, decked out in white platform high-heeled boots, stands a head taller than the room. Churro will be our tour guide for the evening. Using a tap on the shoulder they direct people’s attention to new vignettes unfolding around the space. As the “Sail Away” number concludes they invite audience members with blue wristbands to follow, and thus the night begins in earnest.
Detour spreads the action out over two large rooms, each containing numerous playing areas. Director Garcia’s use of space is clever. The balcony railing of one room, set-dressed in orange life-vests, makes a convincing ship’s veranda. Lighting designer Del Medoff and Sound designers Jaren Feeley and Jules Indelicato create unique environs for the characters to play within. A performer’s heavily made-up face glows in the light of a well-placed flashlight as they lip-synch to the gay anthem “I Will Survive,” sung by a sultry deep masculine voice. Darkness creeps at the edges of playing areas creating separation and mystery. Following the glow of another light around the corner reveals a second solo survivor in song.
It’s a make-your-own-adventure evening. There is something here for everyone, scripted dialogue, contemporary dance, drag burlesque. It is not possible to see it all, or even most. With a dozen performers there may be six or more dramas unfolding simultaneously.
For the dance lovers I would recommend seeking out Kat Gorospe Cole’s gravity-defying inebriated dance in the bar area. Her despair is palpable while her movements also define the motion of a ship at sea. Syd Franz in upturned blond mustache, creates a sphere within their swirling hands. While making wooshing sounds, their plunging arms and circling torso seemingly capture or creae a storm’s energy a la Poseidon, God of the Sea. Another treat was Shaharla Vetsch disco-prancing up and down a steep staircase with a delightful winking sexiness to ABBA’s song of lost love, “SOS.”
Star turn of the evening for me goes to Cheetah Biscotti for their burlesque dance atop the champagne bar. A shipwreck is just the change of scene this character needed to set her kink sail flying. In exaggerated curly pink wig, mermaid-scaled bra, and micro wrap skirt, by costumer Abdiel Portalatín Perez, Biscotti struts and bumps, lustily captivating all.
Cheetah Biscotti, center, holds out a message in a bottle, accompanied from left Glamputee, Mudd and Lisa Frankenstein. Photo by Robbie Sweeny
The scripted pieces were more difficult to follow. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart running from her past, a stowaway now fortuitously shipwrecked, excitedly shares a waterlogged journal with her grumpy beach-mate Wiley Naman Strasser. While the acting is strong, the writing is a bit clunky as she teaches him to tie knots, though he is the supposed mariner. From here I lost the thread of her story as I missed subsequent scenes. Later Strasser is given perhaps the strongest dramatic moment: running a cord of white nautical flags through his hands he reflects on all the things he has lost in his life; from keys and wallet to his first boyfriend, his first apartment, his temper, and his sense of home. We all mourn with him as he calls out shared losses such as, Lucca Ravioli and Mission Pie, victims of San Francisco’s gentrification.
The show ended fairly abruptly as all walk into a blue sky, leaving us in the dark but for the rotating light of a cleverly improvised lighthouse to show us the way. Though, the pieces don’t always add up to a satisfying whole, We Build House Here offers us the thrill of close proximity to performers and invites us to explore with an open mind and connect the dots as we go.
Review by Jen Norris of May12 performance; published May 14, 2023.
Detour Dance, We Build Houses Here,
OASIS, San Francisco May 4 – 20, 2023
DirEctor: Eric Garcia
coNtriButIng DirectoRs: Cornelius, Maurya Kerr, Chuck Wilt
playwright: Brian Thorstenson
Cheetah Biscotti, Kat Gorospe Cole, Quinn Dixon, Lisa Frankenstein, Syd Franz, Audrey Johnson, Melissa Lewis, Alex Locust, Mudd, Wiley Naman Strasser, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Saharla Vetsch
Kat Gorospe Cole, Quinn Dixon, Syd Franz, Audrey Johnson, Melissa Lewis, Wiley Naman Strasser, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart
SounD dEsigner: Jaren Feeley; souNd EngineeR: Jules Indelicato
liGhting designer: Del Medoff; lightiNg AssisTant:Jessi Barber
Oasis tEch: Nic Candito
coStume DesigneR: Abdiel Portalatín Perez
Stage ManaGers: Jax Blaska, Amanda Vigil
Styles Alexander, Salimatu Amabebe, El Beh, Mia J. Chong, Gabriele Christian, Kevin Clarke, Julie Crothers, Jes Deville, Rachel Dichter, Kira Fargas, Natalie Greene, Zoe Huey, Adam Magill, Nico Ortiz Maimon, Hadassah Perry, Chelsea Reichert, Paul Renolis, Wailana Simcock, Chris Steele, Brooke Terry, Brianna Torres