The Wau Wau Sisters (say “vow vow”), nee Tanya Gagne and Adrienne Truscott, are no strangers to a little transgression.
A look-see on any Monday night in the Williamsburg-neighborhood Brooklyn, New York, bar and performance space that hosts the Wau Wau’s weekly show tells all: Their multifaceted act — a martini-tart distillation of the duo’s professional circus skills and combined talents for singing, songwriting, screwball comedy, and elaborate, hilarious costuming — co-opts musical genre and cultural cliche at a breakneck pace and addresses subjects from taboo crushes to Catholic-schoolgirl porn, from straight-posing boyfriends with an eye for trannies to loopily religious, harpy mothers-in-law. The Wau Wau Sisters’ show is a tongue, that’s been who-knows-where, planted firmly in the cheek of political correctness — a bit of spit winking sequin-like in propriety’s eye.
In keeping with this spirit, Mountain Xpress has kindly allowed this writer to violate a bit of journalistic ethic in favor of irreverence. One of the Wau Wau Sisters is my own sister — the guesswork’s up to you.
Legend decrees that the two Wau Wau siblings were “mysteriously separated at a tender age, and miraculously reunited many, many years later, when they found themselves billed in the same variety show in Milwaukee and arrived in identical, and, to some, charming outfits. By their fifth post-show cocktail, they had shared many memories, some bitter and some sweet, of an early childhood in travelling shows and circuses. When other girls their age were busy pouring tea from miniature tea sets, these poor sisters were already darning fishnets, pick-pocketing theater-goers and swearing off bourbon for good. Again.
In real time, Adrienne and Tanya — both with strong backgrounds in contemporary dance — have performed together since the mid-’90s with Brooklyn-based alternative performance groups, including the OBIE (off-Broadway)-award-winning, all-female circus/dance troupe, Lava; the gender-bending Bindlestiff Family Cirkus; and Circus Amok, founded by and featuring the bearded Jennifer Miller.
In 1999, they joined forces to create the Wau Wau Sisters, and in the ensuing years have developed a rock-solid New York following, performing at downtown New York performance mainstays such as CBGBs, Brownies, and Joe’s Pub. They recently toured with the feminist/punk/rock band Le Tigre, and have garnered national print and television media coverage, as well as being featured on the National Public Radio program “The Next Big Thing.”
Their cabaret-format show includes five or six of their repertoire’s some 50 routines, each of which feature different costumes and sets bespeaking visible and audible influences that careen successfully from Dolly Parton to Joan Jett to KISS to Jonathan Richman; from Lucy and Ethel to silent-film star Clara Bow to drag duo Kiki and Herb; from Mae West to Angela Carter; from bygone flamboyant circus personality Antoinette Concello to Esther Williams to Tallulah Bankhead to early-Charlie’s Angels Farrah Fawcett to Carmen Miranda. (If the Wau Waus went New Age, their motto might be: “Let your inner Judy Garland out.”)
You’re as likely to witness a circus/vaudeville skit — sporting naughty French getups, the pair perform stylishly convoluted acrobatics while mixing drinks and smoking Pall Malls — as a striptease that leaves the girls in bikinis made of candy hearts or crime-scene tape. A full-on, irony-jammed heavy-metal cover may well be followed by a musical skit starring two gin-sodden geriatric chanteuses, which may well see a gorgeous, twilit ’30s-glamour-girl number in its wake.
Amid outrageous adaptations of musical standards of all eras, the Sisters’ original songs (Adrienne’s comic and twisted, Tanya’s poetic and haunting) — which they mostly write individually but perform together — make for by turns hilarious and soulful punctuation. They tumble and bend and balance one another in a head-swiveling plethora of acrobatic tricks, while handling all manner of bizarre props, clad in an eye-popping series of ensembles in which enormous wigs, copious eyeliner, feathers, fur, sequins and spangles figure prominently.
On tour in support of their new CD, A Little T & A Never Hurt Nobody, the Sisters pull into the parking lot of Hairspray in their Pepto-Bismol pink ’67 Buick Special, “Betty,” on Wednesday, July 17. Here’s some of what they had to say about their moniker and humble beginnings, the trouble with clowns, a species of girl called the Cave-Glam, and angel food cake:
Danielle Truscott: Where does “Wau Wau” come from?
Tanya Gagne: Well, Merle Haggard’s — a buddy of ours — dog is named Wau Wau. We’re big fans of Merle. And in Chinese, it means “Baby Doll,” or “doll face” — it’s a term of affection. … Linguistically, it’s also connected to the roots of the word “vaudeville,” and our show is based in vaudeville.
Adrienne Truscott: “Wau Wau” also means “woof woof” in Czech, and it’s also the name of a band in a Bertold Brecht play. Though, just for the record, I’d like to point out here that despite our insistence on the correct pronunciation [“Vow Vow”], we remain most frequently referred to as the Wa Wa Sisters. As in Baba Wawa.
TG: Which isn’t actually all that off, because Gilda Radner is definitely one of our comic influences.
AT: Unfortunately, because [their first paying gig was at the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway Dog Show], we’re also sometimes referred to as the Bow-Wow Sisters. Although I like to think that wasn’t a comment on us, but more related to a general canine frenzy.
DT: How did the Wau Wau Sisters get their start?
TG: On an airplane. We were both members of Lava, and we were on a plane from New York to San Francisco, going to train at circus camp. Each of us had guitars. We were both playing songs on our own, but we’d never played together before. In the plane we started drawing sketches of how to incorporate acrobatics in a rock band.
AT: We got dressed up in similar, almost identical outfits, and suddenly found we were very courageous! We started doing photo shoots pretending we were the stewardesses and then shanghai’d the stewardess …
TG : And she started giving us props and we got her to dress up in part of our outfits.
AT: And she got us into the cockpit and we took photos there. That started our frenzy for picture-taking. Oh dear. That doesn’t sound right at all, does it?
DT: So what about your performance beginnings as the Wau Wau Sisters?
AT: It was at the Dog and Pony Show, which is a [New York-based] collective for experimental theater. They have a really goofball aesthetic, really supportive audience — it’s mainly Works in Progress — and for the end-of-season show, they wanted us to do trapeze.
DT: Which is something that, along with other circus skills — tumbling, acrobatics, etc. — you were at that point recognized for both individually and as a pair.
AT: Right, but this time we had a stipulation. We said we’d only do trapeze if they let us sing. [Snickers with glee.]
DT: Apparently the ruse worked. Just as an aside — being circus girls — how do you feel about clowns?
TG : A good clown is very hard to find, Danielle. AT: Clowns come up all too often for us. When people ask us what we do we sometimes say something like, “You know, we’re sort of like a singing two-girl circus,” and [if] we don’t say “vaudeville” or “cabaret,” people are like: “Clowns! … Great! Hey, these guys are clowns! Hey honey, these girls are clowns! Isn’t that terrific?”
DT: Because you guys sing original songs, do covers, do all kinds of circus tricks, have so many costumes and costume changes and characters, and so many different aesthetics in your act, it’s hard to say simply what [the Wau Wau Sisters] do. The Village Voice and various magazines have used some combination of the words “vaudeville” and “cabaret” and “burlesque” and “comedy,” with a little “musical acrobatics” thrown in, to describe it. What do you call it?
AT: … It gets called part of the whole neo-vaudeville, neo-cabaret movement, meaning performance that hearkens to both traditions, but with the “neo” slant. But it’s really just vaudeville, I think — raunchy comedy and song and dance combined with skills of some sort.
DT: A lot of your show is about different sets of characters. Tell the readers about some of them, and about how they were invented.