My attendance at this years Burlesque Blitz was pathetic to say the least, what with struggling to prepare for a two month trip to South East Asia further complicated by one of New York’s most massive snowstorm in recent years—which got me full-on stranded out in Long Island and totally made me miss Bastard Keith’s annual mindblender. But I was able to make the scene just long enough to see Nasty Canasta’s “The Case of the Falling Starlet,” a truly delightful mix of “just close your eyes and let the radio play watch over you” and “quick! Eyes wide open, lovely nekkid ladies!” which gave a combined effect of a true throwback, and a true step forward in the world of scripted burlesque shows.
The setup is as familiar as cheesecake and just as satisfying: our seamus, the naked detective, aka Canasta (Pinocle? Cribbage?), is backed up by her girl Friday, “Jonesy,” aka Sapphire Jones, doing such a ridiculous over-the-top French accent that the audience cackles every time she opens her mouth. True practiced comedy. Meanwhile, downstage left, we have the Michael Johnson of the W-WOW Radio Mystery Hour set up with a full ensemble of noisemakers to provide the soundtrack for the radio show, as the players take turns stepping up to the mike and the rest of the cast sits casually upstage, following along in their scripts and waiting for their cue.
Now Canasta won’t take a case without taking her coat off first, so cue the opening strip as Nasty slowly disrobes, kittened by the overzealous Jonesy, who literally follows her around the stage like an anxious lapdog waiting to catch the next article, and causing the audience to waffle between casual arousal and causal hilarity. Stalking as fab physical comedy. As Nasty turns upstage to remove her bra for the final reveal, Jonesy has had enough and strips quickly, literally “downstaging” Nasty. While this kind of inside stage joke might be lost on much of the audience… well, that’s what makes it so funny. “Broad humor” is something else.
But what’s the setup? The movie star Ruby Valentine was killed on the set of her latest picture, and the Chief (Tigger, doing a growl, talking into a tin can—I mean, over the phone) wants Canasta to get to the bottom of it. Which means talking to her costar, the dapper Vic Privates, aka Victoria Privates in drag; her confessor, Father McTigger—natch—busting the never-gets-old “Spirit in the Sky” and alluding to a possible mysterious sister of Ruby’s, and of course giving us a flashback of Ruby still alive—told “ACTION” by Tigger as satanic German director—teasing us with oversized white fans and a slow, hypnotic hip grind. What’s brilliant about the strip scenes in this show is watching the reaction shots of the rest of the cast upstage. Not only do you get to watch Ruby strip, you get to watch Gal Friday and Nasty react to it. Positively delicious.
Gal Friday doubles as both the current picture’s director and the costume maven, who speaks in a “kiss my grits” southern accent—this show is really all about the accents; it’s a radio play, for fuck’s sake—and shows us what she’s made of in the lovely “Moonlight Sonata” piece, and Vic Privates does a drag fan dance, stripping down to—gulp—none so masculine features before being busted by Nasty. We’re looking down the barrel of the end of the first act when Jonesy goes to a screen test with stars in her eyes and is—smack, drop—taken out. “Darkness closes in…” true to the genre, and the cast get up and exit the stage with no fanfare.
If you can’t figure out where this is going, I’m certainly not going to help, and besides, I’m hoping that Nasty keeps this piece around and finds places to pull it out again, and I don’t want to be the one with the spoilers. I will say that this particular piece of burlesque-cum-story-cum-radio-play-mystique is one of the most original scripted shows I’ve seen, and one of the better written. Sure, the pulp thing is done and done again, and the genre lends itself well to easy imitation and quick stereotypes and clichés, but that’s exactly what makes it so adaptable and so easily accessible. Nasty had the crowd in her hand in the first 30 seconds and didn’t begin to lose them until the final ten or fifteen minutes, and got them back somewhere between Tigger’s multiple-personality tirade and Nasty’s reverse strip, a nice bookend to the opening, and unique in that she first STRIPPED from mostly naked before doing the reverse. The bits of lost focus I would chalk up to simple mathematics—the end needs a few cuts. Easy on the denouement. You’ll notice that in any “Scooby Doo” episode, the bad guy gets unmasked, says something about “meddling kids,” Shaggy and Scooby make a joke and we cut to commercial. But this is just me being an asshole stickler about pacing, and I don’t want to take away from my main thrust here, which is: please, Nasty, keep writing shows like this. Your simple no-nonsense patter gives the hamming players a lot of room to move with ample opportunity for comedic interpretation, and the story, while boiler plate, is worth following, above and beyond its basic theatrical purpose: a framework for striptease acts. Bravo, darling. 44 double-D brain, indeed.
As previously mentioned, I’m writing this while sitting in a guest house on Soi Rambuttri in Bankok’s Banglamphu district. What the fuck does that mean? Well, for starters, it’s going to be hard to cover the New York—or any other—burlesque scene for the next month or two. So once again, if you’re one of those people who’s promised to write for us, now would be an excellent time to get to it. I will however try to kick in some news from this side of the world—February promises to show me some nutty Bangkok hi-jinx, many of which eventually make it onto the burlesque stage, or at least the Box stage. And if anyone has any narrative requests, speak up. Our calendar will keep kicking as ever, and to everyone, happy new year and try to stay warm. See you suckers!
All photos ©2010 Melody Mudd. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for high rez images and usage.