Deep into its second decade, the neo-burlesque movement appears to be approaching a critical mass of performers. Combining the traditional, early-twentieth century blend of comedy, music and striptease with a strong contemporary sensibility, they bring to the surface what was always, in the right hands, the subtext of a superficially sexist entertainment: the empowerment of women through the celebration of bodies fleetingly shown to, but always withheld from, men. These days, all body types are fair game and tattoos seem de rigueur. As often as not, irony overpowers sexuality, tittering trumps titillation.
Asheville alone boasts several burlesque troupes and an annual festival, so it was good of N.C. Stage to bring in Atlanta’s Blast-Off Burlesque this past weekend, the better for us to take the measure of our homegrown talent. Blast-Off made the comparison easy by inviting Salomé Cabaret from Knoxville and Asheville’s own Finna GoGo, of Seduction Sideshow, to appear as guest performers.
Blast-Off’s SciFi-A-GoGo intentionally falls on the kitschy end of the spectrum. They assume the audience is in on the joke as they gently parody, with amateur avidity, such self-parodying works as I Dream of Jeannie, Iron Chef, The Addams Family, Goldfinger and Star Trek. Dubious music is questionably presented, too: “Car Wash,” “I Got You, Babe,” and, for the finale, the “Solid Gold” songs of 1984. (If you don’t remember, you don’t want to be reminded.) The assumed names — Barbilicious, Ferris Hilton, Dickie van Dyke, etc. — give a clue as to the nature of the humor. You might wish to have a drink or two in advance for fullest enjoyment.
At the first of two performances, the company may have been off-stride. They’d battled snow to get here and, as the leering male emcee asserted repeatedly, they were anxious to have some drinks of their own. (The second performance, reportedly standing room only, may have been stronger.) On the whole, at least until the second act, the audience — somewhat older than one might expect — had a little difficulty warming to the event, causing the emcee continually to exhort us to “make some noise.” That wasn’t easy. Mockery predominated over sensuality, and few of the performers moved particularly well. As for the laughs… For Iron Chef, the secret ingredient was hot dogs. Sonny and Cher were played with their sexes reversed, and then they morphed into Spock and Captain Kirk. “Car Wash” featured big, big hair. Goldfinger was a strobe-lit cat fight. “Ask Alice” concerned a magic brownie and involved a bad rendition of “White Rabbit.”
Faux leather was featured frequently. Bananas danced. But some of the finest moments belonged to an audience-participation banana-eating contest. (Kudos to the gentleman who thought to swallow his whole, and knew how to do it.)
Still, Chinita was legitimately sexy and could really dance; she did a creditable hula, too. Sadie Hawkins attempted the only straightforward striptease (referred to by the emcee as “the old bump and grind”). Dickie van Dyke, a woman always dressed as a man — once with a preposterous mat of fake chest hair — made a good comic pairing with the goofy, male Ferris Hilton. As the evening wore on, one couldn’t help but warm to Dickie and Ferris, and to the company as a whole.
Salomé Cabaret did even better. As Queen’s “Killer Queen” played, a large woman dressed as Marie Antoinette did what she could to remove her elaborate outfit, dislodging a series of small pistols from unexpected places with each repetition of “Dynamite with a laser beam.” Three women stripped as a chorus line to Leonard Nimoy-as-Spock’s “Highly Illogical,” proving Salomé’s self-described approach — “campy, vampy” — highly accurate. Better still, in the first-act finale, Jezabel Rabbit seemed to understand better than anyone the tease in striptease: The pasteboard smile across her chest seemed to grow ever larger with the slow removal of each piece of clothing. In the end, she wore nothing, but we saw only bare limbs and that great, lascivious smile.
Best of all, though, was Finna GoGo. In an evening in which “the naughty bits” were rarely revealed (a flash of bare breast was the reward at the conclusion of most acts, with nipples covered discreetly by hands, glitter, or pasties), she managed to convey real sensuousness without showing anything at all. Sporting a flapper-like outfit and hairdo, snapping gum, and manipulating a hula hoop as she moved with true grace and feeling, she silently did something no one else attempted: enacted a story, about lost love and ultimate liberation. Most important, she took what she was doing seriously, and so did we.