“People need to laugh, especially around Christmas,” says Bombs Away Cabaret performer and coordinator Amber Shehan, (aka Iona Traylor). The performance troupe’s mission is to restore burlesque to its comedic roots, and the group is constantly striving for a balance between inappropriate and socially acceptable, sexual and sensual. Shehan deadpans, “My mom says burlesque is OK if it’s for charity.”
XXXmas: The Naughty List, is just that. The holiday-themed revue, which opens this weekend at the Toy Boat Community Art Space, is both a fundraiser for Bombs Away Cabaret’s upcoming full-length show, planned for this spring, as well as a food drive. Audience members are encouraged to bring canned goods to benefit Loving Food Resources, a volunteer-run food pantry that provides basic needs to people living with HIV/AIDS.
As for the show, be prepared for satirical spins on traditional holiday songs, including, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Santa Baby,” “Blue Christmas” and “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” Audience members may recognize the tunes, but the lyrics are sure to surprise.
The show revolves around four central characters, all members of a cabaret troupe situated in modern-day Asheville. Claudette Cleavage is the emcee. She’s a shady businesswoman and part-time dominatrix. Ophelia Bottome is a fame-obsessed, opera-singing, wannabe socialite. Rod O'Steele is a vapid, self-interested, class-conscious ex-Long Islander. And Iona Traylor is a sweet, folksy, naive West Virginia native. The audience is both spectator and insider, privy to the behind-the-scenes machinations of the cabaret.
Joining Bombs Away Cabaret’s colorful cast of characters are several local performers, including bar poet Barbie Dockstader Angell, Andrew Benjamin of experimental/cabaret band Hellblinki, dancer Elizabeth Evans and juggling troupe 40 Fingers and a Missing Tooth. The revue will include guest geek-burlesque performer Talia de Neko of Asheville-based FTW Burlesque. Geek-burlesque sprang from the Comic-Con culture and incorporates characters sourced from comic books, anime, film, graphic novels and video games such as Catwoman, Barbarella, Betty Draper and Pikachu, to name a few.
The show draws inspiration from more than just the ghosts of Christmas past. Shehan says, “I love the cheesy ’70s Christmas variety shows, especially with really bizarre combinations of celebrities wearing Christmas sweaters, like David Bowie and Bing Crosby.” Performer and publicist Joseph Barcia (Rod O’Steele) adds, “Our show is a cross between that and RuPaul’s Christmas specials in the ’90s.” They describe Bombs Away’s style as contemporary, fun and irreverent adult humor, with roots in vaudeville–style burlesque, spiked with tongue-in-cheek comedic wit.
Shehan credits George Burns and Gracie Allen as her biggest vaudeville influences: “I love their quick witty banter and the way they sing and dance as if it’s something you’d normally do while talking.” Barcia is inspired by early Bette Midler but also says, “I think we’re heading more in the John Waters direction, especially with meta-cabaret character Claudette Cleavage.” But Barcia insists they will never stoop to being shocking just for the sake of it, aiming for humor created by the disparity between ribald and innocuous personalities.
Shehan goes on to say, “We want to be a comedic reflection of characters happening in the world around us.” The troupe uses present-day situations and references in its comedic sketches.
Unlike the so-called perfect physiques lauded by the fashion industry, modern burlesque embraces all sizes and shapes. This can be especially empowering in a society obsessed with image. “Anyone in our culture is likely to have body dysmorphia,” Barcia says.
When Shehan first joined the group in 2011, she herself felt deficient. But performing burlesque has bolstered her self-esteem. Shehan says, “I’ve gained a lot of confidence, and it’s been a big help having a safe, comfortable place to express myself confidently and sensually, and have positive feedback.”
Barcia had a different issue to overcome: “Sometimes people think it’s strange because I’m a male. I have to explain that I don’t do drag. It’s not even androgyny. I’m basically doing the same thing that the girls are doing except it’s a male experience.” He says his performance is in line with the “boylesque” tradition that began in San Francisco, combining the glam of burlesque with a decidedly masculine aesthetic. One of his characters is a male spin on the Jewish American Princess archetype. “Just having a male member makes us edgier,” Barcia says.
No pun intended.
— Toni Sherwood can be reached at Toni_sherwood@yahoo.com.
what: Bombs Away Cabaret presents XXXmas: The Naughty List
where: Toy Boat Community Art Space
when: Friday and Saturday, Dec. 20 & 21, at 8 p.m.
$12 in advance by credit card or cash only at the door