“You don’t have to do this,” says Monique Jenkinson, at the start of her one-woman show Luxury Items. “And I don’t have to be here. You don’t have to watch me.”
“This” she says flatly, “is a luxury.”
Theater in this town can, at times, feel like the exact opposite of a luxury. It’s a gamble, and the spaces where it plays out are so tiny and intimate that if things go wrong it can feel like an endless ride on a Greyhound bus to a place that you don’t want to go, and a ride you can’t sleep through.
Before the show began at CounterPULSE where it runs until Feb. 21, a theater employee informed the audience that a) she had hoped we had used the bathroom already but that b) if we hadn’t she hoped that we could hold it for the next 70 minutes but that c) if we absolutely had to use the bathroom we should be very careful not to flush, because it would completely overwhelm the sound of the performance.
Jenkinson is known about town as an accomplished, edgy modern dancer. She is also known for being the first (and, so far, the only) biological woman to win “Miss Trannyshack” – the highest award that a drag queen can win in the city of San Francisco.
Her late-night numbers on the beer-sticky stage at the Stud – often with elaborate costumes and back-up dancers – were some of the best, and certainly the cheapest, dance performances in the Bay Area at that time. They were a Butoh dance of the feminine – a stylized and enthusiastic mockery of the roles that women performers have been expected to play on stage.
And at times, this show feels like an extended sequence of drag numbers – the playfulness, geekiness, and low-budget creativity of the local drag scene are very much in evidence. There is, for example, a Muppet Show-like sequence in which Jenkinson attempts to moderate an argument between three progressively more irate handbags.
There’s a Busby Berkeley routine with Jenkinson dancing in a chorus girl ensemble made of torn and folded newspaper, backed up by a videotaped chorus line of herself. She sings “We’re in the Money,” switching fluidly between English and Pig Latin.
But Jenkinson, who wrote the show Artist in Residence at ODC Theater and then completed it as part of the CounterPULSE Artist Residency Commissioning Program, pulls it off.
What follows is a bizarre, personal, brainy, and thoroughly eccentric mixture of vaudeville, performance art, and history lesson. Most interesting bits are about the mostly women-led Bread and Roses labor strike of 1912, and Coco Chanel’s collaboration in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.
Jenkinson, a Bennington grad, has in her estimation, 12,977 hours of dance lessons and unpaid rehearsals, and 12,500 hours of waitressing to pay for all those lessons. The life that she has chosen is, in many ways, she says, is the most expensive and luxurious thing in the room.
Luxury Items may be a bit awkward at times, and a bit histrionic at others, but it’s that rare thing: a play written and produced in San Francisco that sees the city’s contradicitons, and nails them with real humor and thoughtfulness. “If you look deeply enough,” she says, near the end of the show, “everything you want comes from someplace ugly.”
She’s not the first person in this town to say it, but she does it well.