In general, burlesque performers, like the late Rodney Dangerfield, “can’t get no respect,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case in Asheville, where audiences apparently understand that, instead of trafficking in sleaze, burlesque attracts true artists with real skills and deep dedication. Count Asheville’s Bootstraps Burlesque among the best.
On March 5 and 6, they presented their latest show, The Laudanum Express, at Club 828. Continuing the tradition of embedding a variety of acts into a narrative, however flimsy, the company spent six months developing dances and routines, and a silent-movie framework. The silent film era was an apposite choice for Bootstraps, for their work harkens back to that unparalleled period’s sense of humor and glamour.
But before the show proper begins, the increasingly ubiquitous and always welcome marionette master, Madison J. Cripps, and his Strings Attached, serve as opening act. For this outing, he brings out Pinky the Mare — half man/half hare; the dragon-slaying Black Knight; street sweeper and would-be dancer, Sam E. Minor; Charlotte the Dancer, and both a Zombie seeking brains and the Littlest Vampire, seeking blood. Audience participation is key, and Cripps has developed his improvisational skills to a high degree. (When a woman offers the Zombie her breasts instead of the brains he craves, Cripps-as-zombie quips, “Cleavage kills.”) Thanks to Cripps’ increasingly sure performance, even after half an hour the audience wants more.
Then Sneaky McFly takes the stage as emcee, a role he plays exceptionally well throughout the proceedings. He announces the evening will employ cutting edge technology, for the 1920s — black-and-white film — and introduces the Carolina Music Band, an acoustic three-piece which really ought to be hired to accompany any silent movies shown in Asheville. (Their use, at strategic moments, of “All of Me” is especially witty.)
Then the generously proportioned Dr. Diurtee takes the stage, a mad scientist in a rust-leather jacket attended by his dim-witted assistant Mort (Keith Campbell). They make a terrific, silent-comedy duo, their exaggerated actions matched by frequently preposterous supertitles.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the stealing of a secret formula capable of unleashing the bearer’s desires. Diurtee, uncertain that the formula’s actually gone, tries out a sample of what he believes to be the true formula on the caged birds Mort cares for, accidentally transforming them into bird-brained humans (Adora Mia and Lola Von Leu). Diurty takes the bird-girls with him to track down the secret agent responsible for the theft, who has presumably boarded the Laudanum Express to get away. Diurtee tells Mort to “Watch my lab,” but Mort, heartsick over the loss of his birds (“They’re all I have”) gets a job on the Laudanum Express, despite his “skinny ass.” Diurtee has to lure the bird-girls onto the train with birdseed … and that’s pretty much the end of the story. One can only assume that the phantasmagoria that follows has something to do with the drug referenced in the train’s name..
And what matter? Cherry Oh! and Corky Bordeaux, wearing red, high-heeled shoes, black mesh stockings, and adorned with tall red feathers, do a shadowed, double strip behind a screen, emerging with bird-beak masks. Britta Felter arrives in a box as “a really big gift,” and dances en pointe with feathered hoops. Queen April plays a drunk in the bar car who gets so hot she has to take off all of her clothes. A dining car scene allows for comic juggling, between Campbell and McFly, with spaghetti and meatballs. And for no apparent reason, Felter, Mia, and Von Leu roll on and dance with rather large balls to take us to intermission.
The second act begins — again, with no discernible connection to “plot” — with Bordeaux doing a classic strip inside a transparent bubble. Felter, on a leash, dances while whirling glowing blue balls about. Oh! performs an extraordinary flash dance while brilliantly manipulating gorgeous gold fabric. After Mort announces, “You stabbed my birds! Prepare to die!”, he and Diurtee juggle knives, literally to the death. McFly comes on as a lonely train conductor, doing a wondrously comic turn bobbling cigarettes and, to the strains of “Send in the Clown,” slipping partway into a jacket on a standing coat rack to become a second character who first comforts the conductor, then slaps and chokes him, gropes him, and pulls off his red clown nose. Queen April returns to dance with lit candles, occasionally dripping hot wax onto her bare flesh
Out of nowhere, Walter Beals appears with the charming Sophie the Wonder Dog to do a few tricks. And finally, the Bootstraps women, announced as the “Kyoto Theatre,” dance a spectacular finale with eye-popping, swirling parasols, and little on besides their high heels.
Does The Laudanum Express make any sense? Of course not! Were there rough edges? You bet, especially when the stagehand ninjas had to make major changes to the set and when, before the final number, someone called out, “The girls aren’t ready yet!” So what? All these performers need is more stage time (and maybe a director) to max out their gifts. Even as things stand, they’re dazzling entertainers. All are good but, it must be said, Oh! and Bordeaux, co-madames of the company, are scholars and masters of the form.
The Laudanum Express, A Tribute to Silent Film, conceived and created by Bootstraps Burlesque (Corky Bordeaux, Co-Madame; Cherry Oh!, Co-Madame; Britta Felter, Dancer/Choreographer; Queen April, Performer; Professor Diurtee, Emcee; Adora Mia, Pick-up Girl; Lola Von Leu, Pick-up Girl) and guests Keith Campbell, Sneaky McFly, Madison J. Cripps and Strings Attached, and Carolina Music Band.
Stage and Set Design by Professor Diurtee. Choreography and costumes by Bootstraps Burlesque, except for the finale, with choreography by Britta Felter and costumes by X & Lisa. Lights by Brian Sneeden. Sound by Nick Nap. Ninja stagehands: Amite, Bobby White, and Wynn. Stage Manager: Bonnie Currie.
Editor’s note: Bootstraps’ Web site says that Diurtee will be leaving the troupe to “pursue a life of international intrigue and mayhem.” He’ll certainly be missed.