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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: Neon Nightz

The Importance of Being Intimate
by David Allan King

I get pumped when shows from Toronto's Buddies In Bad Times visit Montreal. While they've only been imported more recently (i.e. Clean Irene and Dirty Maxine, The Silicone Diaries and this week's Neon Nightz at Centaur's WildSide Fest), Buddies has always been queer enough to give us sophisticated Montrealers a taste of theatre we haven't yet experienced. After decades of launching the careers of some of Canada's top artists, the company currently boasts more Montreal alumni in the Buddies "family"  than ever before, and run by Brendan Healey (who trained in Montreal) there's strong potential for a continued 401-connection that could truly benefit both cities.

Neon Nightz, making its Montreal debut this week at Wildside, is (ironically) inspired by Montreal life, as writer/performer Sasha Von Bon Von (syndicated sex columnist, sex trade advocate and established burlesque performer) recounts her experiences as a Montreal stripper back in the 1990s. Von Bon Bon and dancer/choreographer Kitty Neptune have a chemistry on stage that comes from years of working together in both Toronto and Montreal, and their company The Scandelles,  a hybrid borne from that chemistry, stems from a love of the classic burlesque form that they have already harnessed in the company's earlier works. While burlesque is nothing retro to us anymore (Von Bon Bon's been doing it for years in Montreal at Le Boudoir among other events), the Scandelles have really got it buzzing in Toronto as mainstage fun recently, thanks in part to Buddies' commitment to professionally workshopping and developing all that naughtiness when former A.D. (and Neon Nightz director) David Oiye was at the helm.

There's  a circus-within-a-play going on in Neon Nightz over burlesque as we voyeurs get more than just a little peep into the humane side of lap dance confessionals, "feature" dancers, pole prowess and the oxymoronic "exotic" of women's "roles". 

Accompanied by the live soundtrack of Countess Christmasher (mediocre vocals, but very capable instrumentation on cover tunes perfectly selected as stripper favourites), the debut of Neon Nightz got off to an iffy start Wednesday as Von Bon Bon began her story, but she quickly found her comfort on the new stage. If you haven't read the syndicated columns of 'Sasha', have a look in the Mirror: she's not only a gifted sex columnist, but an informed, modern day feminist writer with wisdom and humour in everything she pens. Neon Nightz is an extended, juicy Sasha column: wisdom, candour, humour (especially when she pokes fun at closed-mindedness) and situationalanecdotes. Her description of her experiences in the Montreal strip scene - more-than-aptly referred to as a "paradox of intimacy" - captures peeler chicks right down to their jouale core.

Class aside (Von Bon Bon does a great job channelling her inner 'quitaine') don't expect a typical club story here ofShowgirls dressing rooms, rags-to-riches hearts of gold or the Sopranos-style underbelly of mafia and drugs. Instead, we get a peep into the club as a confessional for connection, and a perspective on how lap dancing changed the face of the industry altogether.

Michelle Ramsay's lighting got thrown together well on the Centaur's WildSide stage (particularly in frozen physical imagery via Neptune). Unfortunately, we get another "paradox of intimacy" by re-rooting this play onto the larger Centaur stage for a 'set-em-up-and-take-em-down-fast' festival. The work of set designer Andy Moro (who initially converted Buddies' space  into a strip club), gets lost here due to two factors: Centaur's proscenium-wrapped stage (further alienating the intimacy between artist and audience, especially for a performance-within-a-performance about stripping); secondly Von Bon Bon's own one-woman staging, as she tries to adapt to the enormity of the stage, long stage crosses and gaps in the flow of her own text. There's a (seemingly) forced intermission for the fest, some minor redundancy in physical re-enactments of the text (Von Bon Bon's words evoke striking imagery already), and occasionally the feeling that this is a production more worthy of a polished, intimate and mainstage Montreal premiere. 

On a bare stage with a chair, some well-done 'Madonna-and-Whore' religious depth and two 16 foot tall peeler poles, the Von Bon Bon/Neptune chemistry isn't visible in this production, and understandably so. It's mainly due to the work's theatre-dance structure (Von Bon Bon's storytelling, alternated with Neptune's movement and dance numbers that support the story). The choppiness of alternating scenes may leave us wanting more integration between them, but we do get one hilarious pay-off as both performers re-enact the stereotypical (male) fantasy of two "lesbian" strippers on stage in a duo for our pleasure. It is here, as in many other areas of the text, that we're able to see Von Bon Bon's wisdom and laugh at how ridiculous we truly are in our fantasies.

The nudity in Neon Nightz wears off almost as fast as the provocative theatre of the '90s itself today. It helps us get to the heart of the matter: that need for human connection (now more than ever) and those who lose themselves in a fantasy that can be either detrimental or healthy to their own existence (it's a dichotomy explored here in diverse imagery). We often like to think of strippers, like sex trade workers, as lost souls still  in search of something. But through the real-life stories of Neon Nightz, we're able to ask ourselves if perhaps it's not the other way around as consumers. Von Bon Bon's writing, along with Neptune's talented self-choreography to re-create the atmosphere of those anecdotes, saves this production from its replant. Rhythmically, it all needs more development in flow, but at an hour and forty-five minutes, its engaging and thought-provoking enough to get us cursing at the intermission for interrupting our pole-dancing lesson. 

Neon Nightz is at Wildside
For more on The Scandelles and their past shows (Under the Mink, Who's Your Dada? and more, visit The Scandelles's site

1 comment:

  1. Went to opening night of Sasha Van Bon Bon's play Neon Nightz and thought the production has real heart. I really liked it. Oh yeah, and Sasha also blabs with Montreal's HOUR mag:


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