Thursday, April 22, 2021
Performance Onstage The strange and wondrous story of the Sick &...

The strange and wondrous story of the Sick & Twisted Players

Thirty years ago, the troupe brought camp movie mashups, blazingly real talent, and guaranteed Splatterama to nightlife stages.

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Editor’s Note: On the grand occasion of legendary nightclub theater troupe The Sick & Twisted Players’ 30th anniversary, we’re stoked to have DJ and music writer Don Baird share his memories and tell the story of mastermind Tony Vaguely’s ragtag, revolutionary players. Join the S&T Players May 1 for a video premiere and online party! —Marke B.

It was a couple nights after Christmas in 1990 and Tony Vaguely—boyfriend of Alvin Von Popstitute and roommates with Diet Popstitute—had an idea for entertainment that night at Klubstitute, the infamous weekly queer cabaret at The Crystal Pistol.

You see, Tony had a special Viewmaster projector and a couple of discs of the popular Irwin Allen disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure, and he wanted to present a multimedia, improvisationally acted out version of the ’70s movie that everyone knew right in the club, one night only. Diet said, “Sure, lets do it.”

The Viewmaster that started it all.

They picked up a used Christmas tree off the street on the way to the club, chose a narrator to read the accompanying booklet that came with the Viewmaster version of the motion picture and assembled a handful of scenesters to play out some of the most familiar scenes live. When the luxury liner in the story capsized after the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, Tony just turned the projector and the christmas tree upside down—and the actors followed suit.

Photos by Brook Dillon

People loved it, Diet said it was a hilarious mess and booked a couple more interpretations of popular films to be presented live in the club. That was the crude simplistic birth of The Sick & Twisted Players, some 30 years ago. I don’t think anyone anticipated the group to go on to produce over 30 separate productions over the next seven years (many fortunately recorded and archived here) and actually move on to legitimate theater spaces, shows that ran multiple weeks and even higher levels of tech innovation and adventurous theatrical concepts.

The idea of presenting live onstage versions of popular films was a very rich realm to delve into. Translating the magic of modern film faithfully to the stage was a task that prompted a great deal of imagination. The group used scavenged props, actual bits of audio from the film, only slightly adapted scripts, cheesy special effects, audience participation gimmicks, gender fluid casting, and the uncompromising vision and tenacity of Tony Vaguely. He would churn out scripts, cast the shows brilliantly, run rehearsals in all kinds of different places, promote the events, direct, manage all the over-the-top tech, and often star in the shows as well. He brought “Theater” to the nightclub environment and, eventually, took that raucous atmosphere to legitimate stages all over town.

I was lucky enough to become a longtime member of the group very easily. It was on the night that they presented Carrie as a one night only show at the Crystal Pistol. I had to work that night so I arrived at the venue when the show was over. There was a triumphant feeling in the club and I sensed I really missed something special. I talked to Tony and told him i wanted to be a part of a production in the future, but i was a bit stage shy. Maybe i could play animal roles.

I then said i could make a perfect pig noise and could have played the pig in Carrie. I demonstrated my pig squeal and he said if they ever did it again i was in. Then quite suddenly Tony cast me as both a live dog and a dead dog in the horror classic Halloween. It was a perfect level of challenge for my acting abilities, and rehearsals started immediately. I really wasn’t all that confident about performing onstage, and figured that hiding behind an animal costume would make things easier.

At the first rehearsal I knew this was going to be unbelievably fun. Among the cast were two of the finest actors I’ve ever seen. Michael G Page, a huge theatrical talent, played the role of a child, little brother to Laurie, the Jamie Lee Curtis role as played by the incomparable Omewenne Grimstone. In rehearsal as we ran lines, whenever Laurie was required to scream, something she does continuously for the second half of the film, Omewenne would just say “scream here scream some more, scream again” as she was saving her voice for the performance.

On the night of the show at Klubstitute when it was held at Brave New World, my character was killed off early so I was able to take in most of the second half. When Omewenne started screaming I was spellbound. I thought she is the most purely talented, amazing person alive. She claimed to be inspired by Faye Wray in King Kong but I saw hints of Diamanda Galas for sure, and Jamie Lee of course.

This all took place in a night club so the action took place on the floor where everyone was sitting. Chase scenes and choreographed fights commenced among the crowd, making it a very visceral experience. The audience was a part of it and they loved that. There’s a term in theater, “breaking the fourth wall.” It means when the imaginary wall between the actors and audience which keeps them as observers is broken. I was pretty sure The Sick & Twisted Players took a wrecking ball to that wall, and things were about to get even weirder.

The next production saw Tony Vaguely really stretching the limits of taste and genre and concept by taking on the massively popular film Alien—except he cast the matriarchal space horror classic with the characters from the cartoon “Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space.” This called for the melding of two-dimensional cartoon characters with gritty sci-fi horror, replete with a heavily feminist story arc and buckets of blood and other fluids.

Oh and I almost forgot, groovy musical numbers because Josie and the Pussycats were an intergalactic touring rock band.

I was cast as Sebastion, their snickering black and white cat. I honestly forget who played the person whose chest exploded and unleashed the monster on the ship but I know it was messy. Miss X was cast as the Alien and her interpretation was definitely that of a hideous composite drag-monster. Michael G Page played a cartoon creature called Bleep, which was also his only dialogue for the show. Dina Fruitfly played Ash the cyborg who tries to kill Ripley, played by Flynn Demarco, and ends up decapitated and spewing milky fluid, which she performed brilliantly, even drenching the audience while telling the cast they are all gonna die from the killing machine unleashed in the ship.

We used one of those collapsible childrens’ play tunnels in which most of the cast was slaughtered brutally. I got to carry the first face-attacking alien thing in my mouth and offstage and be a go-go dancing cat for the musical number. It was a more demanding role than playing a dead dog. For the finale, when the monster is sent hurtling through space, Tony had a Barbie doll dressed like Miss X that he sent flying across the room on a wire spot-lit and it was magnificent. Again the crowd went nuts for this show. The S&T players were becoming a sensation.

The next production I was in was another brilliant lofty concept from Tony, when he tackled “The Shining, A Musical.” By this time the players had grown to include several new and talented members like Leigh Crowe aka Elvis Herselvis, who played Jack Torrancre; Deena Davenport as Wendy Torrance; and Johnny Kat as Mr. Hollarann. Tony played Danny Torrance. One of the most genius bits of casting came with the enlistment of bartender Stephen Maxxine at the back bar as Lloyd the bartender who played his part to the hilt between drink orders.

The cast featured an actual naked lady, a person under a red blanket playing the wave of blood from the elevator, a pair of twins, and I think i played a guy in a tuxedo getting head from a person in a hamster suit but the hamster didn’t materialize.

There were a couple of musical numbers including Danny Torance lip-synching “Oh Danny Boy” as Tony played the little boy who lives in his mouth with his spot lit finger, and Wendy Torrance beating Jack Torrance with a baseball bat while lip-synching “Hit the Road Jack.” All of the lead actors gave show-stopping performances and again the crowd loved it, roaring with laughter and overjoyed with being walked all over by the cast throughout.

Another notable show presented at Brave New World was Rosemary’s Baby starring Justin Bond. That show marked the beginning of features presented in Splatterama. Thats where any elements featured in the films, like blood, water, whipped cream, or, in Rosemary’s Baby, chocolate pudding, would be thrown on the audience in particular scenes. It had a strange undertaste. Oddly enough the audiences adored Splatterama!

The first time The S&T players presented in a legitimate theater space was when the group brought Carrie to Life on the Water at Fort Mason in 1992 for a three-week run. I not only played the pig, but fleshed out a couple additional human roles. It was this show where the special effects really grew and shined and stunt work came into play. Plus Tony Vaguely tackled the lead role of Carrie, as well as directing the whole thing.

We played out the entire film scene for scene, sticking with the actual script and even recreating the shower scene and the prom scene and a dream sequence in slow motion just like the film. We nailed those moments. I got knocked off a bicycle by telekinetic forces, squealed and got killed, and then played a prom guest.

Tony Vaguely as Carrie. Photo by Marc Geller

Buckets of blood were dumped, doors were slammed shut, floating firehoses blew us around the stage, fires broke out, people were electrocuted, the basketball hoop crushed Mrs. Collins (Page), gymnasiums burned, cars wrecked and exploded, a variety of kitchen utensils and axes and Fisher Price chan saws flew across stage on wires and crucified Mrs White (Grimstone), and a house collapsed, all live onstage for every performance.

The audience chanted along “Plug it up, Plug it up” for the shower scene and eventually were given tampons to throw at the stage when appropriate. The cast elevated itself to new levels as an ensemble and in the unique task of recreating the magic of popular film in a theatrical environment.

Photo by Brook Dillon

Eventually the Sick & Twisted Players found a semi-permanent home in the Bernice Street Theater, a live-in co-op run by about four different musicians, artists, junkies, and allies who opened their home to our productions and rehearsals. The place had a stage and bleacher-like seating, and it was just around the corner from The Eagle bar, south of Market. There the S&T Players launched many shows, often with multiple week runs. They did Halloween I and II as a double feature, The Amityville Horror, “A Partridge Family Friday the 13th,” My Bloody Valentine with Snow White and the seven dwarves, Funhouse with the cast of Scooby Doo, The Omen with Mary Poppins, “The Exorcist: A Dance Macabre,” “Texas Chainsaw 90210,” Poltergeist, and The Cool Ones.

Photo by Marc Seller

The casts were ever changing, constantly huge, and featured multiple talents of note like Connie Champagne, Phillip R Ford, Danielle Willis, Robbie D, Heklina, Laurie Bushman, Miss X and Allison, Jordan L’Moore, Michael G. Page, Noni Heath, Omewenne Grimstone,Ghis Lorree, Gentry Lane, Leigh Crowe Kevin Lyons,Gary Fembot, Qpid, Mylar, Zeon, Tom Starr, Gwyn Waters, Kyle Overstreet, Deena Davenpiort, Johnny Kat, Bobby With-it, Marilyn Fowler, Marke Menke, Kathy Queer, Rob Foster, Chuk, Leslie Weinstein, Violet, Tish Imbert, Jack Dubowsky, Rob Russell, Mike Wilson, Rodney Tesoni, D’arcy Drollinger, Patrick O’Connor, Jason Mecier, David Hawkins,Timmy Spence, Fresh, Seanetta, Sean Fromer, Kelly Kittell, Evan Bee, and many many more.

There were times when due to some unforeseen emergency a cast member would miss a performance and they were replaced by Inflatia, a blow up party doll manipulated by the cast with lines delivered from the soundbooth. The Show must go on, and always it did.

At the Bernice Street Theater, by popular demand, Tony revived The Poseidon Adventure for a three-week run and pulled out all stops for the fullest production of the blockbuster yet. The cast was huge, even featuring non-speaking extras as well as several Inflatias and even Barbie dolls in some of the best special effects yet. The play stuck with the film script completely and used the actual film soundtrack for the capsizing scene, but run twice through so we could set up some elaborate stunts while depicting the chaos of an ocean liner turning upside down. It took some very well-rehearsed synchronised group choreography to create that illusion live onstage and personally i feel like that scene was one of The S&T Players finest moments.

There were also people with high powered squirtguns taking care of the Splatterama effect by getting the audience wet at certain points. Tony had a ramp built on the back stage wall at about 15 feet so the actors could play the final scene up high when the rescuers cut through the bottom of the ship to save the survivors. There were many great performances, but Deena Davenport in the Shelly Winters role, Belle Rosen and Johnny Kat in the Gene Hackman role, and Reverend Scott and Leigh Crow in the Ernest Borgnine role turned out powerful performances that really gripped the emotions of the audiences.

Kathy Queer was also amazing in the Carol Lynley role of Noni, the singer from the ship’s band who lip-synched the ever popular Oscar-winning theme song “The Morning After.” Noni Heath played the teenage sister Susan Shelby to my role as Robin Shelby, her 12 year old brother who says “Shove it shove it shove it” to her and she really slapped my face for every performance. We also portrayed a competitive sexual attraction for Reverend Scott and were super horny slutty kids at every possible turn of the script. The entire run was a triumph and really brought a lot of attention to the group.

It would be really challenging to adequately write about every single celebrated and hilarious moment the Sick and Twisted Players brought to life in nightclubs and theaters all over the city from 1990 to 1997. It was a puzzling era with a definite need for some magic and fun and creativity, in a scene that struggled to identify itself while our numbers sadly dwindled due to that other pandemic. The Sick and Twisted Players kind of carried the torch or spirit of that San Francisco guerilla drag theater group The Cockettes and Sluts a Go-Go, and imbued it with an unstoppable “let’s put on a show” attitude of kids playing in a basement or garage.

Anything was possible, and a S&T Players show created everything that good theater should be. The group inspired countless performers in the rich and brilliant SF drag scene to launch hundreds of in-club performances of television shows like “The Golden Girls,” “Sex in the City,” “Star Trek,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” bringing the small screen to the stage, the stage in a nightclub, where real theater will always belong.

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