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The Fisher King of Camp 

Medea: The Musical and the scholar-clown who created it

Wednesday, Jul 14 1999
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo
JOHN FISHER'S MEDEA: THE MUSICAL (NOW AT THE Hudson Mainstage Theater) has evolved since it took the San Francisco theater scene by storm in 1996. Having packed a succession of progressively larger theaters, and having garnered major critical awards in the Bay Area, Fisher's gender-bending take on Euripides' tragedy has grown noticeably leaner over the years. And yet it remains determinedly part of the alternative theater landscape.

In his comedy, the 35-year-old playwright (and two-time winner of the Bay Area's Will Glickman Playwright Award) portrays a director who's rehearsing a homosexual interpretation of Euripides' tragedy when the two leads -- one gay, one straight -- fall in love (or at least lust), upsetting the dynamic of the play-within-the-play while blurring onstage and offstage roles. Add to that Fisher's busier-is-better aesthetic, and you get some sense of where he's coming from: "I like a stage to be full of people. It makes it look like you're getting your money's worth."

All of Fisher's many plays have addressed facets of homosexuality, but perhaps none more explicitly than his 1998 Combat! An American Melodrama, which interpolates stories about closeted life in uniform into the history of the gay psychiatrist Dr. Harry Stack Sullivan, who taught the Army to identify -- and eliminate -- queer recruits and volunteers.

It seems natural for Fisher, an ardent admirer of WWI films, to have connected with the recently deceased Ron Link, another fan of macho heroics. "Ron wanted to direct Combat! down here. An actor from [L.A.'s] Celebration Theater saw it in San Francisco, told him about it, and he read the script. We had long conversations on the phone, but we never met. He was really into war movies. I love it that when someone insinuated that his work wasn't gay enough, Ron reportedly said, 'All theater is gay.'"

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WHEN QUERIED ABOUT HOLLYWOOD, FISHER, WHO WAS approached years ago to do a Frasier script on spec, suggets that he's underwhelmed by the place. "I'm just here to do the play. If something happens with it, fine. I've come down here so many times to have meetings." Fisher has also considered -- and rejected -- an offer to film his play The Joy of Gay Sex. He's now working on a screenplay about affirmative action -- or the lack thereof -- in the UC system.

Though he's busy performing in Medea, Fisher has still found the time to attend a substantial amount of theater here in the Southland. Theater-A-Go-Go!'s recent (now closed) production of Poseidon Adventure: The Musical! "was hysterical. I loved it," gushed Fisher. "It was a lot gayer than in San Francisco, where a gay theater company, the Sick and Twisted Players, performed another production based on the film. Theater-A-Go-Go! had a lot more flirting and nipple-twisting between Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine."

Asked to compare L.A. and Bay Area theatergoers, Fisher diplomatically says it's too early to tell. But in a phone interview, Elsa Wolthausen, who has played Medea in both cities, enlists Fisher into her argument that patrons in the two cities are definitely different. "[Audiences] haven't been as gay here. And they don't get the classical references. But maybe I've been brainwashed by John to think that gay audiences are smarter."

Or maybe it's just Fisher who's smarter. A Ph.D. candidate and lecturer at UC Berkeley who's writing a dissertation on camp, Fisher has an academic bent that shows in his theater writing. "History is, in fact, a story," says Fisher. "The historical Medea never killed her kids. Historiography shows how the writing of history can be manipulated. Medea: The Musical sends up history" -- by rearranging the plot.

Of course, one of the primary uses of history is political, as is the use of camp. "Camp is often perceived as a silly way of performing. But it actually does critique society -- switching gender roles is the politics of camp . . . Jason's character shows this when he switches allegiances and joins the straight club . . . Gender and sexuality make you part of a political party that doesn't want you switching."

Fisher's integration of pop culture and scholarly inquiry results in plays that are both funny and intellectually provocative. (The darker moments in Combat! are juxtaposed with comedic interludes.)

His next play, Partisans!, is about a group of Jewish university students who become resistance fighters. "I'm going to Holocaust libraries, and this is a great city for it, because there are several archives with taped interviews of partisan survivors. It's fascinating to me, because I grew up watching every war movie I could find, but I didn't know the Jews fought back."

And if there's a gay angle to be had, be sure Fisher will have it, though not everyone is crazy about his out-and-queer theatrical stance. One irate concierge told him she could never recommend Medea to tourists from Idaho.

 

Medea: The Musical plays at the Hudson Mainstage Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., through August 1; (323) 856-4200. And Fisher and company will perform "Dance of the Living Dead" (to the tune of "I Will Survive") from Medea at Mann's Chinese Theater Friday, July 23, following an 8 a.m. screening of the newly restored Ray Harryhausen film Jason and the Argonauts. (Repeats in the evening; call for times.)

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