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Brian Copeland and Marga Gomez Get Impersonal at The Marsh

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Marga Gomez in the Lovebirds (Patti Meyer)

There are always plenty of solo shows going on at The Marsh. The theater’s negligible sets and multiple stages allow any number of monologists to extend their respective shows as long as they want to keep doing them and the audiences keep coming back. It’s fairly routine for one performer’s show to play at 5 and another at 8 on each of the Marsh’s two stages in the Mission District (including Alicia Dattner’s The Oy of Sex and Louis Pearl’s The World’s Funniest Bubble Show, with Charlie Varon’s Feisty Old Jew and Jill Vice’s Tipped & Tipsy joining the rotation soon), while other raconteurs (Geoff Hoyle, Don Reed) have taken root at The Marsh Berkeley.

Now two of the venue’s most popular performers have returned with brand new shows. Brian Copeland and Marga Gomez are both stand-up comedians whose previous theater pieces have been heavily autobiographical. This time out, both inhabit other characters, and only show up as themselves in bit parts.

Also a TV and radio talk show host, Copeland went into theater with a huge splash in 2004 with Not a Genuine Black Man, his one-man show about growing up in one of the first African American families in San Leandro when it was infamous as one of the nation’s most racist towns. Its world premiere run at the Marsh just kept going and going, becoming the longest-running solo show in SF history, and it’s scheduled for a 10th anniversary revival at Berkeley Rep in April.

Copeland’s 2012 follow-up The Waiting Period proved equally powerful, talking frankly about coping with suicidal depression and somehow managing to make it funny without making light of it. This past holiday season he unwrapped The Jewelry Box, a show about six-year-old Brian trying to earn money to buy a Christmas present for his mother.

Brian Copeland in The Scion; photo: Carla Befera
Brian Copeland in The Scion; photo: Carla Befera

Copeland’s new piece The Scion is a portrait of another guy who grew up in San Leandro at around the same time he did: Stuart Alexander, the self-proclaimed “sausage king” who inherited the family business, the Santos Linguisa Sausage Factory. Alexander’s biggest claim to fame was murdering three USDA meat inspectors who came to check out his factory. (And no, he didn’t dispose of the bodies in the way that would seem obvious if this were fiction.)

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Through interview material and other testimony of people who knew Alexander, Copeland paints a sobering portrait of privilege. Here was a guy who was always prone to violence and always doing things that were blatantly illegal, but he never got in trouble because his wealth and family connections always got him out of it. Copeland contrasts that to his own experience of being routinely pulled over and questioned just by virtue of being an African American male. “I came out of the womb a suspect,” he says.

He also draws on his own experience and that of other businesspeople to show that, yes, food inspectors and regulations can be frustrating. It’s easy to feel like you’re getting picked on when they’re just doing their job.

Directed by David Ford, who works closely with solo writer/performers in developing their shows, The Scion is performed on a bare stage with no set at all. David Hines sets the scene with subtly effective lighting shifts and the occasional judiciously chosen sound effect. Copeland embodies the people giving their first-person testimony sensitively, with well delineated character voices.

Some of it is hilarious, as when Copeland satirizes the talking heads on all extremes of the political spectrum called in to debate the George Zimmerman case on TV news. (“Well, white people had slavery too; it was called affirmative action!”) His comic timing is superb, his delivery assured. But he’s making a very serious point with this part, too, about the false equivalencies and insidious buzzwords routinely used to derail any honest debate.

The point Copeland keeps coming back to and develops quite effectively is that we may say “the rules are the rules for everyone,” but in practice there are always some people who are let off the hook way easier than others. And, amazingly enough, the very privileged — who are always given the benefit of the doubt while others are always under scrutiny — manage to convince themselves that they’re the ones being persecuted when they don’t get their way, because they’ve always had their way before.

Brian Copeland in The Scion; photo: Carla Befera
Brian Copeland in The Scion; photo: Carla Befera

Marga Gomez debuted her first solo show at The Marsh way back in 1991. After several shows about her family, sexuality, ethnicity and midlife crises, she’s back with a tenth one-woman show in which she plays a wide array of other, presumably fictional characters. In Lovebirds she’s Polaroid Phillie, a cheery and charming nightclub photographer who earns her livelihood selling young couples Polaroids of themselves. Somewhat zoned out ever since she took some bad acid in the ’70s, Phillie’s been “taking ‘roids” in Greenwich Village for 30 years, but the pictures are more expensive now because they don’t make the film anymore. The staging by Gomez’s longtime collaborator David Schweizer is effectively minimal; Vola Ruben’s set is just several tall stacks of gray shoe boxes, in which Phillie says she keeps her old photos.

Gomez also plays Barbara Ramirez, a hilariously earnest and awkward women’s studies major who’s excited to make all kinds of changes in her life “now that I’m a lesbian.” Then she’s Turkey, a macho butch lesbian who comes on strong to Barbara. She plays Barbara’s dad, Orestes Ramirez, an irresistibly suave maitre d’ who’s in love with Gladys, an aspiring but untalented nightclub singer. We don’t see Gladys, though we hear a little of her unfortunate voice in Mark O’Brien’s sound design, but we meet her husband, Richard Richards, a droning, half-awake male chauvinist professor who advocates sleeplessness as a life path. We also get a hysterical glimpse of Barbara’s mentor Aurora Flashmoon, a women’s circle leader who chides people not to clap because it’s aggressive and to only talk when you hold the talking sponge: “We don’t use a talking stick for obvious reasons.”

Marga Gomez in Lovebirds; photo: Patti Meyer
Marga Gomez in Lovebirds; photo: Patti Meyer

At first it’s not at all clear that this is all a story Phillie’s telling that takes place in the 1970s. When Gomez shifts from the photographer to play other characters, it’s hard to tell that these are the people in Phillie’s life, not just someone who happens to be in the same room at the same time. But it doesn’t matter too much, and the pieces fall into place eventually.

A cringeworthy musical number notwithstanding, the back-and-forth between all the characters is awfully entertaining, but it’s also not quite a story, at least not one with any kind of resolution. We hear about how some of the characters ended up, while others (the male ones in particular) are all setup with little follow-through. Everybody’s looking for love, but it’s not exactly a love story. Instead it’s one of flirtation and pursuit, catch and release. In a way Lovebirds is like these not quite love affairs; it chats you up and shows you a good time for a while, but as a dramatic arc it doesn’t quite go all the way.

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The Scion runs through March 1, 2014 and Lovebirds runs through March 15, 2014 at The Marsh in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit themarsh.org.

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