There are famous trilogies: David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, the Nova Trilogy written by William S. Burroughs and the original Star Wars trilogy.
And then there are the Rebelles. Asheville’s guerilla-theater burlesque troupe has returned from a year-and-a-half hiatus with the final installment in the trilogy they’ve been creating since their inception in 2003. They’re calling it a revival — and, fittingly, the subject matter is religion.
“The Rebelles always touch on religion, sex and politics,” asserts company co-founder Christine DiBenedetto. They just happen to slip those controversial subjects through disguised as scantily clad, stiletto-heeled, T&A numbers.
In the beginning, there was Through Sick and Sin, which introduced audiences to the G-Spot Liberation Army — a raucous legion known by its alter-egos: Frau Lippenstift, Simi Rocket and Double Oh Sexy, to name a few. “The first show had to do with civil liberties,” says co-creator Rebecca Hecht. “The next show was about war.”
That performance, A More Perfect Union (following the campy cabaret sideshow I Know What You Did Last Slumber Party), saw the Liberation Army off to “booty” camp — a lighthearted take on the U.S. war in Iraq.
“The next revolution has to be a spiritual revolution,” opines Hecht as reason, in part, for the Rebelles’ new work, Nothing is Sacred.
This time, the Liberation Army, embarking on a revival tour to spread the gospel of their leader “The G,” comes under the attack of televangelists Jim Half Baker and Tammy Fayker.
“What’s so great about it is it’s totally absurdist theater,” DiBenedetto stresses. “Everybody has religion in common” — i.e., most of the world’s population identifies with some sort of spiritual ideology, even though, as she points out, “[spoofing] religion can get you protested.”
“Religion is a driving force in the world,” Hecht jumps in. “In politics, in the U.S., in what makes us go to war … but if you can’t find levity in it …”
“You can’t burlesque something unless there’s something going on,” DiBenedetto finishes.
That’s right. Burlesque — a theatrical art form, originated during the Victorian era, that uses parody as social commentary — can also be a verb. To burlesque is to mock, thereby knocking some of the political correctness or taboo out of such prickly subjects as war, morality and sexuality. For the Rebelles, burlesquing tends to involve ruffled panties and tassled pasties.
Eyes on the absurdist theater, buddy
But don’t confuse slinky routines with lap dances and strip teases. “When we started the burlesque troupe about four years ago, it was right before the whole [contemporary-burlesque] scene exploded all over the country,” DiBenedetto notes.
Asheville made room for not just the Rebelles, but also the seemingly short-lived collective Go-Go Girlie Action. And a recent Craigslist posting sought talent for yet another group.
“I feel like I’m constantly having conversations with people about burlesque, and I’m trying to reel them back in to what burlesque really means,” says DiBenedetto. She finds that audiences exposed to nationally performing acts like the Suicide Girls — they call themselves punk, goth, tattooed alt and emo pinup girls; the Rebelles’ cofounder calls them “soft-core porn,” and derides them as “giving a bad name to what burlesque is” — sometimes can’t differentiate a titillating bar show from a politicized absurdist-art performance.
“It’s almost like we’re about to drop the ‘burlesque’ from our name,” Hecht hints. “We’re defining our own genre.”
“With the fundamentalist conservative climate of this country right now, it’s the perfect time for the Rebelles,” DiBenedetto feels. So, when the group reconvened this year (now 18 members strong), they decided to hit conservatism where it hurts — by taking on religious fundamentalism.
Girls [still] just wanna have fun
“We decided we wanted to write a big show because that’s when we do our best work,” explains DiBenedetto. “That’s when we really collaborate.”
She names writer Whitney Shroyer as a major behind-the-scenes force (apparently he’s earned the title “Rebeau”), along with the newly formed Pheromones band (with members of Speedsquare, Mother Vinegar and Hellblinki Sextet). But she also claims that “Asheville rallies around us. We feel connected to performing.”
Nothing is Sacred spoofs top seller The DaVinci Code, hit TV series Project Runway and hot topics like gay marriage. It teeters toward heresy (apparently some of the Rebelles’ characters are claiming to be reincarnated religious icons like Eve, Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc) and fills out the plot with plenty of bawdy bump-and-grind (the campy bits are neatly labeled “The Book of Acts”).
But above all else, the Rebelles want their fans to have fun. “This [trilogy] is an experience,” Hecht says. “But if people haven’t been to Through Sick and Sin or A More Perfect Union, [Sacred] stands on its own.”
“Before each show, we say, ‘Let’s go out there and make people feel good about themselves,'” says DiBenedetto. “That’s one of our driving forces. We’re hyper-aware of [the] many experiences people have to not feel good about themselves.”
So don’t plan on getting preached to at this revival — though a “Hallelujah” is permissible.
“You don’t come to a Rebelles show to sit and be quiet,” DiBenedetto says, laughing. “You come to have a good time and get a little loud.”
The Rebelles Revival: Nothing is Sacred shows at Asheville Community Theatre (35 E. Walnut St.) the next two Fridays and Saturdays (Aug. 4, 5, 11 and 12) at 9 p.m. Tickets are $25 at Wink, Harvest Records, Outspoken Cafe and Static Age Records, or online at etix.com. Info at 254-1320.