Twilight of the Goddesses
Among the dozens of theater troupes in the area, Saint Paul's History Theatre stands out for its dedication to original dramas and musicals written about historical events in Minnesota's history. The play I saw Sunday, Queens of Burlesque, written by David Mann and directed by John Miller-Stephany, concerned itself with the burlesque tradition in Minneapolis in the early nineteen-fifties. Burlesque has been a popular entertainment form for thousands of years- there has always been a market for performances by scantily-clad women. Vaudeville was a cut above burlesque, and when the vaudeville circuits started to fade (along with the passing of blue laws in some communities) and with the rise of television, most of the smaller places went out of business (or, in the sixties, became much raunchier) and this style of performance passed out of popular culture, with the possible exception of Las Vegas. It didn't happen all at once- there were still burlesque shows at the Minnesota State Fair up until the seventies, but eventually these too were shut down.
But this play was more about the women who performed- "The Exotics" as they were referred to. Four women, each at differing stages of their careers, each with different aspirations and hopes, interacting "backstage" while waiting for their turn to perform on stage. This play is not a polemic, it is much deeper and wiser than that. Anyone who has ever performed for a living on the lower rungs of show business faces the same dilemmas that these women face in dealing with aging, talent, and just the breaks of life. The sometimes catty and shallow arguments they have with each other (and the manager) change over the course of the play, with the emotional high point being a moving soliloquy by the oldest dancer, "Gladys Page" (Greta Grosch) who ruminates on (but does not regret) her life in burlesque after having been fired. As she is speaking another dancer,"Blaze Comet" (Stacia Rice), is dancing another form of farewell- she's found out that she's pregnant and that she's losing her top billing to "Rose DuBois" (Emily Rose Skinner, pictured), a younger performer.
This is an unusual show, in that there actual burlesque routines worked in and around the drama. Each member of the audience will have some kind of personal reaction to this display of pulchritude- while hardly scandalous by modern standards (or the lack thereof)- the physical reality of nearly naked women dancing in a provocative manner brings an added dimension to the experience. After the performance an informal Q&A took place; some audience members were obviously uncomfortable, some were delighted, and some of the older gentlemen even shared a few personal stories about a couple of the more famous performers whose names had come up in the play. I revisited my own memories of Hennepin Avenue in the late 50's and early 60's when the few remaining clubs still had the glamor photos of their "queens" in their windows, along with a "doorman" who would try to hustle businessmen in to see the show (and would chase us kids away). My only real experience with burlesque, in Las Vegas, was so execrable that I'd never felt the urge to go again. This play may have changed that feeling.
This was a true ensemble play, the entire cast gave solid performances, with the four "Exotics" (all of the previously mentioned plus Daisy Mackling Skarning as "Barbette Delight") creating unique and multi-dimensional characters. The music (by Andrew Cooke) captured the milieu perfectly, and while the choreography by Gina Louise Woods was not over-the-top, it always fit the character- these were burlesque queens- not aerobic instructors. Gina is the leader of Minneapolis's "neo-burlesque" scene, her experience gave these routines a true sense of authenticity.
Further thoughts, after some additional reflection:
I may have enjoyed this play more than "real" burlesque because the women in it were allowed to speak. I have a pretty good idea of a what a naked woman looks like, but what a woman consists of is usually far more interesting than her appearance. None of the characters in the show were presented as being particularly deep, but they all were given a chance to express themselves. A play usually has to contrast exposition and spectacle; this play was balanced perfectly between the backstage dialog and the on stage performance. My only quibble with the play is that the men in the play- the manager and the comedian- should have been sleazier. Burlesque was probably never this nice.
Photo credit: History Theatre