In the alternate universe of San Francisco, all the world really is a stage.
It's a place where many entrants in the premier athletic competition, the annual Bay to Breakers, care little about race times but obsess about costumes. (Think suits — as in chicken, lobster, birthday.) It's a place where one restaurant's acclaimed cuisine is served not by waiters, but by "gender illusionists." And it's a place where the entrepreneurial homeless don't simply panhandle, they offer to play songs on an invisible guitar or rent you a pigeon.
All the men and women here really are merely players, or so it seemed when I visited last month. San Francisco loves a good show, and I came seeking several. My goals: to enjoy a couple of plays, watch the curtain rise on the California Academy of Sciences' spiffy new home and check out the theater district's Hotel Adagio, one of the city's newest boutique lodgings.
Statistics indicated I was hardly alone. One in three overnight guests comes here specifically for arts and culture, according to the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. San Francisco International Airport reported an 8% increase in arrivals for the first three months of 2004 compared with a year ago, and analyst PKF Consulting said first-quarter hotel occupancy has risen 11.8% over the same period last year.
Waiting in the wings as a beneficiary of the recovery are San Francisco's theaters. Larger houses such as the Orpheum (where Disney's "The Lion King" runs at least through Sept. 5) and the Curran (where "Big River" was scheduled to open last week) share the scene with smaller venues, places such as Exit Theatre (www.sffringe.org), producer of the San Francisco Fringe Festival in September, and Intersection of the Arts, which this month is presenting Dave Eggers' "Sacrament!" (www.theintersection.org).
I chose arguably the two most beloved theatrical institutions in the city, American Conservatory Theater and "Beach Blanket Babylon."
An extravaganza of song, satire and shtick, "Beach Blanket" has managed to parlay pop culture and pop music into its own form of pop art. It celebrates its 30th anniversary this month — more than 11,000 performances before 4.5 million people. To test its cross-generational appeal, I invited my 74-year-old father and bought tickets ($43 each plus service charges) that put us three rows from the stage.
"Beach Blanket" follows Snow White as she crosses the globe in search of true love with the help of an Aretha Franklin-sized fairy godmother stuffed in a pink Tinkerbell costume. But the plot is an unabashedly transparent device for 90 minutes of nonstop musical numbers, sight gags and impersonations — much of it proudly low-brow.
An Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike clad in leather sang "Great Balls of Fire." A Björk double appeared in a swan dress and laid an egg onstage. When a pseudo Demi Moore showed up trailed by an Ashton Kutcher impersonator pedaling a tricycle, I wasn't sure Dad would get the joke. But there he was, laughing with the other 392 people packed into North Beach's Club Fugazi.
"Demi and Ashton," he said. "Now that's funny."
The showstoppers are the legendary hats, at times as tall as the actors. The finale involved a wedding cake and seven dwarfs crowning the newly wed Snow White.
Shakespeare this is not. But it's hard not to fall under the show's spell and appreciate it as a classic piece of San Francisco. Where else, I wondered, would a campy revue be so successful that it could celebrate its 30th anniversary by giving the city's ballet, opera and symphony $100,000 each?
If "Beach Blanket Babylon" is the Adam Sandler of the theater scene, then the American Conservatory Theater is its Meryl Streep. In its 37th season at the Geary Theater, A.C.T. on June 24 will present the world premiere of "The Good Body," more anatomical musings from "The Vagina Monologues" playwright Eve Ensler.
I caught a matinee of "A Mother," Constance Congdon's black comedy about the infectious greed afflicting a dysfunctional Russian family after the death of its patriarch. For $49 plus a $5 online service charge, I got a front-row, lower-balcony seat to see Olympia Dukakis in the title role as the deliciously conniving and desperate widow Vassa Petrovna Zheleznova.
Dukakis was stellar, but it was veteran stage actor Tom Mardirosian (known to many TV viewers as Agamemnon Busmalis on "Oz") who earned the most yuks as a lecherous uncle hooked on a male-potency serum.
Something old, new A block down the street from A.C.T. is the Hotel Adagio, where I spent two nights. The hotel, formerly the Shannon Court, underwent six months of renovation and reopened as the Adagio less than a year ago.
The old, Moroccan-inspired arched entrance and lobby windows have been preserved and paired with a '70s-tinged palette of dark brown, caramel and burnt orange. It's nothing fancy, but I found it pleasingly casual and low-key. My room ($127 a night plus tax) was quiet, the staff accommodating. My only complaints were an ineffective ventilation system — opening a window worked better — and a bathroom faucet that looked cool but almost required an owner's manual to operate.
Cortez, the restaurant and bar attached to the hotel's lobby, was a little less clumsy in achieving its sense of style. The playful yet sophisticated space is dominated by multicolored lamps suspended from the ceiling like giant Tinkertoys aglow.
The small-plates menu was appealing too. I ordered duck breast, tender and full of flavor, in a lavender honey glaze served with roasted endive, as well as a decent hanger steak with Swiss chard. But with dessert — a delicious lemon meringue tart with blueberry compote and a dollop of ginger ice cream — the bill came to about $50.
Other meals were less expensive but no less enjoyable. I had lunch one day at the landmark Zuni Cafe. Slices of Saveloy sausage were complemented with pristine little gem lettuce, fava beans and tiny radish discs, all bathed in a caper-shallot vinaigrette.
For a pre-theater appetizer one evening, I stopped at Town Hall, a 7-month-old hotspot whose chefs hail from Wolfgang Puck's Postrio. My soft-shell crab drizzled in Old Bay aioli was as nice as the ambience.
I also liked the design of the California Academy of Sciences' temporary quarters on Howard Street, opened last month and scheduled to have its official premiere Saturday. (The museum's permanent Renzo Piano-designed home in Golden Gate Park won't be finished for at least four years.) The temporary quarters showcase crowd-pleasers from the museum's 18-million-specimen collection, including an alligator snapping turtle and neon-colored Amazonian poison dart frogs.
Taking center stage now is an ingenious exhibit on ants. Red harvester, honey pot, Argentine — it's a cast of thousands upon thousands. The insects are remarkably clever. Weaver ants produce silk and sew together leaves as camouflage. Slave maker ants capture workers from other colonies and force them into labor. (You can imagine what the Dracula ants do.)
I watched leaf-cutter ants slice off plant particles, hoist them overhead like some towering "Beach Blanket" hat, then lug them back to a subterranean city. There's no diva fairy godmother, but it's still a good show.
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Budget for one
round trip $140.20
two nights with tax $290.02
"Beach Blanket Babylon" $48.50 A.C.T.'s "A Mother" $54.00
of Sciences $5.00
Cortez Restaurant & Bar $48.89
Zuni Cafe $16.00
Town Hall restaurant $17.93
Other meals $35.66
BART fare to
and from airport $9.90
Final tab $693.10
Hotel Adagio, 550 Geary St., San Francisco, CA 94102; (800) 228-8830, http://www.thehoteladagio.com .
Beach Blanket Babylon, (415) 421-4222, http://www.beachblanketbabylon.com .
American Conservatory Theater, (415) 749-2228, http://www.act-sf.org .
California Academy of Sciences, (415) 321-8000, http://www.calacademy.org .
Craig Nakano is an assistant Travel editor.