This just in: The majority of human males have a pronounced predilection for viewing the female form, preferably in various stages of undress (I'm reasonably sure the science backs me up on this one). As with everything we do, however, things get complicated from there. The Queens of Burlesque takes a shot at examining the lay of this particular land and comes away with an insight or two amid a healthy degree of visual distraction.
A fine body of work: (left to right) Daisy Macklin Skarning, Emily Rose Skinner, Scott Jorgenson, and Stacia Rice
The Queens of Burlesque at History Theatre through May 23
The action is compressed into a single (presumably sweaty) August night in 1953 at the Gay 90's in downtown Minneapolis (gay, for the moment, reverting to its earlier definition). Four female striptease artists do their thing in a variety of acts, filling time in between by bickering, unveiling aspects of their offstage life, and waiting for the arrival of an uber-stripper star scheduled to descend from Canada that evening to cap off the show and send the male audience home with a particular variety of (ocular) satisfaction.
David Mann's script wraps an arm around the shoulder of cliché, apparently convinced that wit will win out over innovation (he's largely right). And so we have the glamorous, feline Blaze Comet (Stacia Rice); the young, ambitious upstart Rose DuBois (Emily Rose Skinner); the seen-it-all veteran Gladys (Greta Gosch); and the blithering idiot sweetheart Barbette (Daisy Macklin Skarning).
All that's missing is the stars-in-her eyes girl fresh off the farm, one thinks, until we learn that our bases are covered (in the form of Gladys, 25 years before). But by then we've been beguiled, in an entirely unironic fashion, by a series of well-executed burlesque numbers (in one, the cast cavorts while a recorded band bowdlerizes "Für Elise"; in another, Rice is a kinky Little Bo Peep with lost sheep adorning each cheek of her posterior). There's a reason this form of entertainment was, and is, popular, and its lascivious appeal is only part of it.
Director John Miller-Stephany's nifty staging, along with Matthew J. LeFebvre's set design, grant us the best of both worlds while coming to this conclusion. The performers, including the harried Emcee (Scott Jorgenson) alternately face the audience and away from it. We witness backstage confabs while simultaneously glimpsing the outlines of the show onstage. And, when the action starts to drag, we get another song-and-dance number.
The backdrop to all this is a lightly rendered exploration of the plight in which these women find themselves. Mann keeps things breezy but lets flashes of darkness show through (a rare instance of pushing too hard comes with one character's outburst about her body, and her unborn child, being her own property and no one else's; there's no denying the impact of the sentiment, but the wording sounds anachronistic). A pregnancy looms, and with the impending forced retirement of the semi-aged Gladys matters are thrown into stark focus.
Gosch delivers a solid monologue on the crap choices facing women of her generation (marriage, essentially, or a lonely post at a receptionist's desk or Steno pool). Later, Rice lends a hard, self-critical edge to her character's dreams of dancing on more legitimate stages. None of this digs too deep, and probably shouldn't. Mann's dialogue is pitched in quick, real-life tones, and the performances allow the characters to rise above type.
The real point arrives at the end, in a bittersweet realization that Gladys expresses before moving on to the what-now phase of her life. Burlesque, for her, has always been about more than the paycheck. It has been the most beautiful and transcendent experience of her life, a kind of communion between herself and her audience, a rite in which everyone worships the concept of sensual beauty, and the possibility that existence can rise above the everyday. There's no reason, in other words, that the high and the low can't cohabitate in the selfsame moment; beauty comes in a multiplicity of forms but with its own unapologetic truth.