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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Feature: Theatre of Burlesque

Holly Gauthier-Frankel: Miss Sugarpuss

From Follies to Folies
“No one ever went wrong putting a half-naked, beautiful woman on a poster.”

By joel fishbane

On a recent trek through the downtown core, I glanced up through the haze of snow to see a friend toting a gun and dressed in black lingerie. No, I wasn’t standing outside Café Cleopatra; my friend was sprawled across a poster hanging in the window of a copy story. Seeing my scantily-clad friends on billboards has become an annual tradition for me. It always happens right before Valentine’s Day and it always means the same thing: Mainline Theatre is producing another show.

“No one ever went wrong putting a half-naked, beautiful woman on a poster,” says artistic director Jeremy Hechtman, currently rehearsing Sexy Dirty Bloody Scary, which is set to open on February 15. Hechtman has proved his theory on several occasions, from the orgy of my naked friends that promoted The Mid-Life Crisis of Dionysus to the poster for the 19th Fringe Festival, in which all pertinent information had been tattooed across a buxom beauty’s naked back. 

Van Dyck: Burlesque encourages us to laugh….to shout to the heavens "Yes, I love sex, and I want everyone to know it!"

Using sex as a marketing ploy is hardly new – even PETA recently released an erotic ad claiming that vegetarians have better sex. Still, if the usual MELT advertising is any indication, you wouldn’t know Montrealers have a reputation for being open-minded when it comes to the erotic life. Traditionally we have been rather tame, with sexual marketing rearing its head only during those times when Mainline has something to promote.

Is Mainline just being crass? Or are they simply continuing a trend that has been prevalent in the theatre ever since the Ziegfeld Follies, when beautiful chorines showed off their cross-gartered gams?

Like the Follies, Mainline’s risqué ads are usually in keeping with the type of show they are promoting. Most ad campaigns go out of their way to deflect our attention from the product—look at ads for beer or fast food. But Mainline’s ads, like the Follies’ before it, always reflect a form a theatrical honesty. While Talisman Theatre focuses on translations and Tableau d’hôte promotes Canadian writers, Mainline Theatre has made theatre of burlesque their raison d’être.

Flo Ziegfeld produced revues but Mainline is more interested in using vaudeville, burlesque and erotica as stylistic devices through which to frame a narrative. These shows are often more than simple entertainments, using extreme comic forms to satire contemporary morals. Mainline Theatre is certainly not a pioneer in this regard – look at Chicago, Cabaret or the infamous erotic revue Oh Calcutta. But here in Montreal, Mainline has become the leading purveyors of the form, utilizing it in Johnny Canuck and the Last Burlesque, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and now, Sexy Dirty Bloody Scary.

For Neon Nightz, sex was a narrative tool which allowed its creators to explore deeper issues.

Still, it’s starting to look like they will no longer be alone. Sidemart’s Whiteman’s Whisky Comedy Revue incorporated the more ironic aspects of the form while MöcShplat mixed elements of burlesque and vaudeville along with their painted grins. But the most obvious addition to the scene is Holly Gauthier-Frankel, who recently dazzled everyone with her hit show Miss Sugarpuss Must Die. A staple of the cabaret scene, Gauthier-Frankel worked to push Miss Sugarpuss beyond a five minute act of striptease. “I am really drawn to the old world of vaudeville comedy,” she says, admitting a strong kinship with that era’s characters and style. 

Neon Nightz
MSMD recently appeared at the Wildside Festival along with another burlesque / erotica piece called Neon Nightz where performer Sasha von Bon Bon recounted her days as a Montreal stripper. Taking us both behind the scenes and into the confessions of several memorable customers, we soon saw that the act of stripping had become a striking metaphor. The women on stage were stripping physically, but from an emotional standpoint, it was the customers who showed us the goods.

For Neon Nightz, sex was a narrative tool which allowed its creators to explore deeper issues. Hechtman is on a similar quest. “On first glance my shows come off as bawdy, vulgar, lowbrow and generally silly,” he says. “But beneath the surface there is usually something profound.” By way of example, he cites his first foray into the genre at the 1997 Fringe. It may have been called Live Sex Show Llamas, but it also dealt with issues of censorship. Even Sexy Dirty Bloody Scary, says Hechtman, is a tale of what happens when morality goes askew.

As for Miss Sugarpuss, she used comic patter and tap-dancing bumblebees to tackle alcoholism and child abuse. “But the audience were willing to make that journey with us,” says director Paul Van Dyck. “Provided we kept them smiling the whole way.”

Like any theatrical form, theatre of burlesque is not for everyone.

Joanne Sarazen of Sexy Bloody Dirty Scary
Theatre of burlesque is rarely gratuitous – although Neon Nightz featured oodles of nudity, it was all intertwined with the narrative. As for Hechtman and Miss Sugarpuss, they have so far preferred to always play the tease. “Nothing can ever live up to what is in peoples minds,” says Mr. Hechtman, noting that when you tease an audience, they will always fill in the blanks. Van Dyck echoes this idea: “It’s always good to leave something to the imagination.” As for Miss Sugarpuss, she admits that much of her act is geared towards audience response. She has her limits, but believes that nudity remains a valid theatrical choice—as long as the performer maintains their own integrity.

Like any theatrical form, theatre of burlesque is not for everyone. Nonetheless, these shows remain a valuable part of our theatrical landscape. As Van Dyck says, “Other forms of erotic entertainment…leave one to feel they should solemnly watch in anonymity. Burlesque encourages us to laugh….to shout to the heavens ‘Yes, I love sex, and I want everyone to know it!’ It also enforces a positive body image and reminds us that the erotic is not limited to the cookie cutter body type we have come to expect.”. 

To this I would only add that theatre of burlesque’s very existence is a celebration of that most cherished democratic principle: freedom of speech. There are too many places in the world where Miss Sugarpuss would never be able to perform, where Mainline Theatre would be closed by the censors and where pictures of my scantily-clad friends would be treated as forbidden fruit. Whatever you may think of its artistic merits, we must never forget that we are privileged to live in a society that allows shows like Sexy Bloody Dirty Scary to exist. 

Sexy Bloody Dirty Scary is at Mainline
Read CharPo reviews of Miss Sugarpuss Must Die and Neon Nightz
Read Barbara Ford's profile of Holly Gauthier-Frankel


  1. Nice work Joel. Next show I do I will put you, half naked on the poster.

  2. I appreciate a naked beautiful person. Absolutely. But because so many posters have made this easy choice (particularly Mainline) it has become much less convincing. Borderline lazy, in fact.


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