“It must be one of those urban tours,” remarked a pedestrian, walking past a small group of us gathered, with headsets, on the corner of Page and Ashbury on a recent breezy Sunday morning.
This was part historical walking tour, part performance piece, produced by Eye Zen Presents, a company created and run by Seth Eisen. It is the third edition of Eye Zen’s OUT of Site series, in which groups are led through specific neighborhoods to explore San Francisco’s queer history. This one, “OUT of Site: Haight-Ashbury,” pays tribute to important figures in the Haight in the 1960s and 1970s by way of a guided stroll from the neighborhood’s iconic epicenter to the now-manicured eastern edge of Golden Gate Park, near where Hippie Hill once attracted scores of flower children.
The walk is a leisurely two hours with two major components.
One is a series of scripted two-person scenes, depicting two particular Haight denizens: shop-owner Peggy Caserta, known, according to the script, for inventing bell bottom jeans, and flower-power icon Hibiscus, creator of the zany, free-form performance troupe The Cockettes.
The other is a compilation of interviews with folks who themselves lived through the joyful, drug- and sex-fueled countercultural upheaval; you listen to them on your headphones as you walk along Page Street to the park. You also hear layers of classic rock, some poetry and, later, snippets of newscasts.
Stage, film and TV actor Tina D’Elia plays both Peggy and Hibiscus; in an extended series of scenes in the park, designer Jessica McKee’s elaborate costumes turn her from Peggy into the outrageously glitzy, gold-lamé-bedecked Hibiscus. The transformative D’Elia is equally adept at both roles.
The scenes, written by local playwright Michelle Carter, cover lots of ground and are at various times funny, interactive (the audacious Hibiscus draws a few audience members into the action) and haunting.
As Hibiscus making a reappearance from the grave (“In 2021 there is no touching?!”), D’Elia sings and cavorts, waving a purple wand. “Spin, spin, darlings!” she cries, swirling around beneath a tall fir tree, then, “OK, that’s enough of that. What will we do next?” What a perfect sentiment to conjure that everything’s-up-for-grabs sensation that must have been heaven, especially to those who were finally free to come out of the closet.
But it’s as Peggy that Carter most poignantly encapsulates the ups and downs of the era, from Peggy’s youthfully confident days as a shop-owner—the first set of scenes take place in front and in the window of what was her actual shop at 1506 Haight—to her gradual downhill slide, a victim of the excesses of the times.
In one scene, D’Elia plays not only Peggy but her sometime lover, Janis Joplin, selling the rock’n’roll queen a pair of groovy bell bottoms for $4.95. Later, Peggy is accused of giving Janis the heroin that killed her.
In another, Peggy, nodding out on heroin, is down and out in Southern California, a wreck of her former self and a painful reminder of what happened to so many of those blissed-out flower children. “We created a world here … music on every sidewalk,” she says at one point.
Some parts of the journey work better than others; a scene involving a sailor-puppet who’s afraid to come out is handled clumsily, and elaborate costume changes slow down the momentum.
But “OUT of Site: Haight-Ashbury” provides a theatrical portal into a significant period in The City’s history in a way that an urban tour just can’t do.
OUT of Site: Haight-Ashbury
When: 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays and June 18, no shows June 19 and July 3-4; closes July 25
When: Doolan-Larson Building, 1500 Haight St., S.F.