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November 12, 2013 By Paul
Review: “A Nude Hope: A Star Wars Burlesque”
Dr. Burlesquelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Boobs
Many nerd-friendly Chicago organizations contact CNSC Headquarters about their events. Gorilla Tango Theater (GTT) reached out to us for a review of one of their many nerd-themed burlesque shows. I accepted the offer, though I had never seen burlesque. It promised to be nerdy, funny and a little sexy which all sounded cool. Truth be told, I was a little nervous about the whole thing. My only experience with women taking their clothes off on stage was a particularly unpleasant pair of strippers at my bachelor party. Even before then I had avoided going to strip clubs. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy looking at beautiful women and can certainly appreciate the beauty of the human body. Strip clubs just seem skeezy and awkward to me. Not my thing. I’m plenty awkward on my own and I try to not be skeezy. Honestly the only thing I knew about burlesque is that girls take their clothes off. I had a lot to learn.
History of Burlesque
I set about researching burlesque. I’m a nerd. It’s what I do. There’s actually a lot of cool history and I was surprised to find out just how old it is. First, the word burlesque stems from the Latin word “burra” that means to “send up.” One source I read cited Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” as a literary burlesque. The European playwrights wrote burlesque when they used grotesque distortions of characters for comedic and satirical effect.
Burlesque revues came about in early 19th century Britain as a reaction by the lower classes to the upper class obsession with high theater and opera. The earliest shows lampooned the dramas of the time as ribald parodies. The shows were written with snappy dialogue and clever wit but the main draw was the scandalous lack of attire of the female performers. It was a mix of sex and comedy that sold tickets. By the late 19th century, burlesque had become one of the biggest entertainment industries in both the U.S. and in Britain. At this point burlesque was well established as a full evening of entertainment with a variety of acts during a given show. The striptease would be interspersed with comedy, magic tricks, and other stage performances.
Interestingly, the vaudeville performers typically looked down on the burlesque circuit even though many of the biggest names in vaudeville got a start in burlesque. My understanding is that once they got to vaudeville, going back to burlesque was like getting sent down to the minors. This didn’t stop some of them from slumming it under aliases during the off season.
At some point in the mid-20th century the burlesque circuit lost all its momentum and nearly died out much the way vaudeville did. It remained dormant for a few decades until a revival in the 1980s. Since then burlesque has enjoyed a flourishing, albeit underground, culture.
That’s pretty cool. What started out as a literary technique became entertainment for the masses and then a sub/counter-culture. History is kind of crazy that way.
GTT was kind enough to give me a second ticket, maybe so I would feel more comfortable with a friend at my side. I invited my buddy Dave since we were already going to see The Avengers that day. It turned into kind of a cool double feature, actually. As promised the show was nerdy, funny and a little sexy. Well, more than a little sexy.
As a huge Star Wars fan it was great to see the story hit all the right notes. The writer clearly is part of the Star Wars fandom. That love for the source material gives the show a sincerity that’s impossible to fake. Most of the characters were played with hints of the original but with a heavy layer of, well, burlesque. Luke is a whiny, perverted teenager. Obi-Wan Kenobi is equal parts wizened and dirty old man. Han Solo is brash, confident, and sexy. Vader is menacing and darkly seductive. Threepio is insufferably uptight. The Millennium Falcon even makes an appearance as the fan in a fan dance. R2-D2 has a lot of stage time and serves as a character, a prop, and a prop bin. He’s really very utilitarian. The characters were lovingly crafted by someone who is a huge fan. There’s nothing better than that for nerd culture.
True to the roots of burlesque the show is a comedic take on all things Star Wars. The cast was all female and the comedy was raunchy. Luke, for instance, habitually sniffed the clothing discarded during the stipteases before tucking it away in his tunic. The show has plenty of snappy one-liners for a quick laugh but also features hanging moments of discomfort that increase the tension in the room. There are a few bits of physical comedy thrown in for good measure. Simply put, this is good comedy.
The music selection was era-appropriate, lending a bit of ironic flair to the production. I’m hardly an expert on 1970s disco, but I recognized songs by The Village People and Hall & Oates. The opening credits even featured the disco-fied version of Mad About Me. I’m sure only two of my readers will ever know what that sentence even means.
So here’s the part of the show I was worried about. I had hangups about watching women take off their clothes on stage. The idea of it made me feel awkward, dirty and self-conscious.
I was able to get over that because of the performers. They owned the space and took charge of the crowd. They were aggressive, assertive and absolutely in control. The sexuality of the show was actually a facet of this. Striptease is about managing perception and expectation.
Most of all they let the audience know that they weren’t up on stage for us. The performers were on stage because they wanted to be. Burlesque is something they enjoy. It’s an art and a catharsis for them. They could be sexy, even in front of other people, because that’s who they were and what they wanted. It wasn’t about me. They weren’t on stage for me. They were on stage for themselves.
Strip clubs are weird and kind of repellant to me. It’s the ultimate expression of nasty patriarchal society that women get on stage so men can drool over their naked bodies. Or that’s how they seem to me. I wouldn’t know. I’ve only seen them in movies. Which, I guess, may not be an entirely accurate representation. I mean, I’m still under the impression that New York and LA are post-apocalyptic wastelands ruled by rampaging gangs because I’ve watched too many movies from the 70s and 80s.
What I didn’t understand before going to GTT is that burlesque is nothing like a strip club. Burlesque is all about the strip tease. Strip clubs tend to forget that second word. A strip tease is about the exaggeration of sexuality, either as titillation or comedy. The various strip teases actually tended to be fairly artful, relying on metaphor and physical interaction of performers to stand in for much of the dialogue and larger action scenes.
The performers’ exaggerated sexuality was split between the comedic and the tantalizing. Burlesque walks the line between those extremes. The ladies of Gorilla Tango Theater did an excellent job of it. From the opening tease of Leia recording a sexy plea to Obi-Wan Kenobi all the way to Han Solo’s chair dance to the tune of “Rich Girl,” the women on stage will have you hooting, hollering, and hot under the collar.
If you’re at all interested in seeing a fun parody of Star Wars with a bit of a sexy twist, do yourself a favor and go check out Gorilla Tango Theater’s “A Nude Hope: A Star Wars Burlesque.” It’s a fantastic show.