‘Pansy’ hooks audience with ’90s club kid culture

New Conservatory Theater Center/Courtesy

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“Pansy” has returned to Neverland just in time for Pride at the LGBT playhouse, the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco. Evan Johnson, an artist-in-residence with the theater’s Emerging Artist Program, stars in this one-man show inspired by J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.”

In contemporary San Francisco, a young Bay Area transplant named Michael discovers a box of VHS tapes, old costumes and obituaries that reveal the life of ’90s club kid, Peter Pansy. These dual narratives weave into each other through the conceit of VHS tapes that periodically transport us 20 years in the past.

Michael is a mild, going-on-sassily mannered man who tests his comfort zone in an effort to find his niche in the gay community. Once he finds the box, he develops a fascination with Peter Pansy — pasting his show flyer on his wall, playing all of his videos and progressively becoming more like him.

To flesh out the club kid experience of the ’90s, Johnson interviewed about two dozen gay men over the age of 40. He noted in a Q&A after the show that the disconnect between current and previous generations of gay men in San Francisco was a partial impetus behind this play. His research paid off because “Pansy” offers a realistic glimpse into the older generation of “lost boys” who faced the AIDS crisis. He effectively links the viewer to what Katie Gilmartin, an instructor at the Queer Ancestors Project, called “lineage without blood lines.”

The AIDS epidemic adds morbid implications to Pansy’s idea of never growing up. But the show avoids being too heavy-handed by presenting how gay culture dealt with this epidemic — through the escapism of clubbing.

Johnson is interested in exploring how we adopt personas. In the enactment of the ’90s club kid scene, we’re presented with meanings so twisted that they are glaringly fake. The notion that we play along in spite of this fakery shows a commitment to the escape from reality.

“Pansy” does not exactly romanticize childhood. Instead, the show blows the imaginative aspects of it out of proportion in stunning displays of camp. Here, “Forever Young” refers to a club remix of Alphaville’s ’80s classic hit. Pixie dust is code for cocaine. Tic-Toc the Croc is actually a blowup beach toy.

Perhaps Johnson’s early exposure to Peter Pan influenced this topsy-turvy metamorphosis of meanings. In 1993, the 7-year-old future playwright visited San Francisco for the first time, witnessing Cathy Rigby play the mischievous flying boy. This experience heavily informed his construction of the character, Peter Pansy.

Pansy is an uninhibited nightclub persona of unknown origin. His persona has swallowed his real identity whole, not unlike Tic-Toc with the clock. “Pansy” shows that escapism is futile — despite the coke-addled partying, Johnson imbues Peter with a sense of fear in dealing with his mortality as an AIDS-afflicted person.

Johnson’s use of shadowplay emphasizes the relation between his work and “Peter Pan.” Pan’s shadow contributes to the fantasy of the play, where he must track it down and sew it back onto his shoes. In reality, a shadow is mere puppetry of blocked light.

Johnson plays with silhouettes on a backlit screen with strobe lights. But Pansy’s shadow has no willpower — escapism is further broken down by the fact that he must act out everything his shadow does.

“Pansy” explores these complexities of gay culture during the AIDS crisis while helping the current generation feel closer to the past, which is more fulfilling than hanging on to an unending present.

“Pansy” is playing at New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco until June 28.

Contact Caitlin Kelley at [email protected].