Onça O’Leary and her Future of Tradition Productions promised a lot from the fourth annual ABSFest this past weekend: burlesque and sideshow performers professional and inspiring enough to raise standards for and expectations of local proponents. And if Friday night’s “Gala and Film Debut” at Eleven on Grove was a genial but bumpy affair, Saturday night’s “ABSFest Spectacular” at The Orange Peel delivered the goods.
In fact, when it comes to the arts of strippers and vaudevillians, the “Spectacular” was unquestionably the most consistently entertaining evening thus far this year, and — given its national and even international scope — it’s unlikely to be topped.
Not that there was anything wrong with the talent on display at the gala. The night got off to a festive start with the arrival of the purple LaZoom bus filled with gaudily dressed revelers who quickly traversed a surprisingly short red carpet to enter Scandals for the first part of the show. Our own Sneaky McFly did his usual superlative job as emcee, though plagued by a late start, on-the-fly shifts in the lineup, a miserably muddy sound system, and an abrupt ending that prevented the presentation of his promised umbrella act.
Asheville-based master puppeteer Madison J. Cripps and All Strings Attached did well in the now-traditional role as opener. Mavi, from Washington, D.C., body painted blue and breasts bared but for persistent covering by her hair, did an extraordinarily controlled and beautiful belly dance, with not one but two skulls balanced on her head. And The Slomski Brothers of Richmond, Va. — one playing a ukulele and the other, of all things, a steel drum — proved a classic burlesque duo, with overlapping patter, a hint of antagonism and a memorable original song, “I Like To Get High.”
Photos by Michael Muller.
Then, rather suddenly, it was time to retreat downstairs to The Boiler Room, where Maria Bella, of Baltimore, appeared as a frumpy older woman who, upon smoking a cigarette, instantly turned into a preposterously frisky stripper.
Hat and Rat, from New Jersey’s Honor Amongst Thieves Circus Sideshow, brought a touch of Coney Island to Asheville, one pounding ten-penny nails up his nose and, subsequently, swallowing a nasty-looking sword, while the other juggled sharp knives and shaved with them simultaneously. Bianca Dupreé, from Baltimore, did some very athletic pole-dancing. Onça gave an award to the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival’s Jim Julien. Finally, it was time for the premiere of juggler-comedian Paolo Garbanzo’s documentary, An American Jester, about his successful quest to become the first American named the official jester of an English castle.
Unfortunately, most everything felt rushed, even as avowed teasers for Saturday’s main event. And the sound problems sank An American Jester, which looked interesting and amusing but which could hardly be heard for the music bleeding through from Scandals above. Almost from the first, the audience of roughly 50 did more talking than watching, and long before the 90 minute film ended, most attendees had drifted off.
Saturday, though, was riveting. The Orange Peel proved a perfect venue, despite the heat and the fact that it was packed (with one of the best-dressed, most sophisticated audiences in town). Paolo Garbanzo, the evening’s spot-on emcee (brilliantly assisted by The Mezmer Society’s August Hoerr on accordion), opened the show with a stunning and hilarious knife-juggling act that simply couldn’t be topped.
He kept the evening moving with his quick wit and enthusiastic but easy-going persona, and he led off the second act with “The Worst Trick Ever,” which saw him traversing, blindfolded, a veritable minefield of more than 100 live mousetraps. Due to audience interaction, though, this bit, amusing as it was, ran a little long, but who could fail to love a performer not only willing to risk having mousetraps snap shut on his barely shod feet but, when called upon, simply to roll around in the traps, risking life and … codpiece.
Additional, welcome comedy was provided by Philadelphia’s Sidetracked Theatre, two very funny women who made the most of rumors that members of the “vice squad” were in attendance. Sneaky McFly performed some nifty, dramatic magic. And local favorites 40 Fingers and a Missing Tooth, though short 10 fingers that night, juggled with such élan and breathtaking technique that a few dropped clubs mattered not a jot.
Several area burlesque companies, which have appeared in town recently, brought their best: Knoxville’s Salome Cabaret and Atlanta’s Blast Off Burlesque (whose featured performer, Dickie van Dyke, all but tore down the house) were fine, but Asheville’s Bombs Away Cabaret topped all, in part by reprising the crowd-pleasing When Daddy Doesn’t Love You from their thoroughly enjoyable full-length work, Eat Your Heart Out (which they’ll bring back for one performance only this Friday night, at Club 828).
Ultimately, though, the night owed most of its excellence to superior artists brought to town just for this show. It’s true that Foxy Moxy, out of Greensboro, sounded the evening’s only sour note (or, rather, sour notes, as this singer/stripper started out sharp and ended up in a different key than the recorded music), but both Talloolah Love, of Decatur, Ga., and Pearl Pistol, formerly of Asheville’s Rebelles and now based in Chicago, demonstrated how slow and sensuous stripping can really be.
Lula Houp-Garou, also from Chicago, came onstage as a jellyfish, and emerged to enact the sexiest strip imaginable without missing a beat with her hula hoop. Cherry Typhoon, from Tokyo, unembarrassed by a certain heft, started off slowly but ultimately wowed the crowd with her extraordinary vivacity and good humor, and the undeniable pleasure she took in shaking and sharing her considerable self.
But far and away the best work of all was presented by the evening’s headliner, Chicago’s Michelle L’Amour. Closing out both the first and last halves of the evening, L’Amour demonstrated a suavity, a surety, and an insouciance that put her in a class with the most revered striptease acts of the last century. Masterful with boas — first a white one, then two red ones — L’Amour owned the stage and the audience, and if anyone ever finds clothes sexier than the torn-stocking outfit she wore in her second outing, snatch them up immediately. L’Amour has emerged as the grande dame of neo-burlesque, and though she’s not the only stripper able to do extraordinary things with her derriere, she fully earns her nom de guerre, “The ass that goes pow!”
It’s easy to become jaded about burlesque, to wonder what the fuss is all about when it comes to pasty-adorned breasts. But when one sees the best of any art, that art’s made new. This edition of ABSFest was as good at it gets, and if you weren’t there this year you won’t want to miss it next.
The Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival 2010, presented by Onça O’Leary and Future of Tradition Productions.