Liberty Bradford Mitchell invites you to peek behind the green door in her saucy solo show "The Pornographer's Daughter."
Mitchell explores the thrills and torments of growing up in the sleaze business as her father Artie and her uncle Jim launched a porn empire at San Francisco's Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre in the 1970s. A cheeky 85-minute romp about coming of age amid the bodily fluids, vice raids and g-strings of the adult entertainment industry, the breezy one-woman show is making its world premiere through Feb. 16 at San Francisco's Z Space Below.
Directed by Michael T. Weiss, this is a poignant personal look at a notorious local legend that's become part of the colorful fabric of San Francisco history. If the show feels a little underdeveloped, there's no denying the operatic nature of the Mitchell family saga.
The 43-year-old mother of two certainly has a treasure trove of bizarre material to mine here, from her parent's Summer of Love-era romance to the tragedy of her uncle murdering her father in 1991. Accompanied by the San Francisco band the Fluffers, she regales us with what it was like to learn about the birds and the bees amid the swirl of booze and drugs that marked what Hunter S. Thompson dubbed "the Carnegie Hall of public sex" in America.
It's not an entirely tawdry tale of tittilation. Indeed, Mitchell notes that before they became porn kings, the brothers, who grew up in Antioch, actually had aesthetic aspirations. "Behind the Green Door," considered one of the earliest feature-length adult movies, which starred Marilyn Chambers, was arty enough to get them invited to the Cannes Film Festival. The 1972 picture earned the brothers 50 million dollars and forever changed their fates. Big business soon won out over more artistic considerations. Her parents divorced. Cocaine played a starring role in her father's X-rated lifestyle.
A witty and poised performer who writes vividly, Mitchell is at her most moving when she describes the way the family business shaped her childhood. She may not be as nimble an actor as she is a writer, but it's hard to resist her candor and vulnerability on stage.
She saw her first skin flick at age 4½. Torn between loving her daddy and feeling ashamed of the realm of stripper poles and pasties, she soon learned to hide who she was. Her Berkeley Montessori schoolteachers would have disdained her otherwise.
Her father may have been an unashamed huckster but she was always shy. The older she got, the more Mitchell gravitated to her mother's side of the family, the part that was more blue blood than blue movies. She escaped into summers on Cape Cod and the fantasy that she could get out from under the shadow of obscenity.
While the solo show loses steam after the slaying of her father, when Mitchell descended into rage and depression, her pluck is quite endearing. She is also fast on her feet. At a recent performance she ribbed two theatergoers who kept entering and exiting the theater in search of cocktails without losing her groove.
Still there are rough patches here. Mitchell can sing but the musical interludes don't yet seem to flow from the narrative. She also doesn't etch her journey to healing with as much nuance as she does her tainted past.
Eventually, it seems, she came to cherish parts of her family lore. She still feels the pain of her story but she also remembers Artie and Jim as anti-establishment entrepreneurs who were as proud of their Dust Bowl grifter roots as of their mob connections and mansions. Certainly she inherited some of their flair for showmanship, the lust for the spotlight.
Written and performed by Liberty Bradford Mitchell
Through: Feb. 16
Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco
Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $32; www.zspace.org