By Mark Hein
In the four centuries since Shakespeare wrote his plays, they’ve endured every imaginable kind of directorial and editorial treatment. For example, in Nahum Tate’s 1681 version of Lear, Cordelia doesn’t die but enjoys a love affair with Edgar, a happy ending grafted onto the classic tragedy. In an 1838 Antony and Cleopatra, her golden barge floated onstage bearing an orchestra, propelled by a wave machine. Also in the 19th century, a Dr. Bowdler surgically removed all the “nasty bits” from his best-selling edition of the plays. (Prudish editing is still called “bowdlerizing.”) Our own era has seen Ian McKellan do Richard III as a Nazi leader, and the New York Public Theater do a modern-dress Caesar that was attacked for hinting at assassination of a president.
Here in Los Angeles, something else is going on. Or rather, coming off. Shakespeare is being mingled with — burlesque. Or should that be “mangled”? And should we tolerate such sacrilege?
Save your outrage. When “burlesques” first hit London’s stages back in the 1830s, they were elaborate parodies of famous operas and plays. And guess who got spoofed the most? Yep, William Shakespeare.
The big attraction — besides silliness — was that these shows featured all-female casts, a total reversal of the original all-male performances at the Globe. And the women — when they weren’t in elaborate costumes — wore tights. This was a compellingly naughty attraction for early Victorians.
Burlesque stayed popular, but evolved, becoming more of a variety show than a single extravagant spoof. It also became more focused on revealing the female form: the star turn was no longer two leggy lasses mocking Romeo and Juliet, but a striptease, or a bubble or fan dance. A burlesque was still a “take-off,” but of a different kind.
What with movies, and radio, and TV, going to theaters to see this exotic dancing pretty well died out by the late 20th century. But in recent years, individual producers and dancers began bringing it back — with yet another twist. These modern impresarias began dancing with a feminist subtext. They used sensuous movement and near-nudity not to arouse men, but to own and express their own sexuality. (Doubtless, burlesque performers from the beginning felt a similar joy in taking control of their bodies; but it has gone from being a secret pleasure to being an overt intention in the work.)
At the same time, our notions of beauty and desire have transformed, radically. We’re not scandalized by the thought that women in the audience may find the female form moving, both aesthetically and sexually. We do not feel the patriarchy collapsing when a male dancer moves sinuously across the stage, shedding his clothes.
So the “burlesque” that’s mixing with Shakespeare today is a very different animal from what it was back when the two first met. And the question we need to ask isn’t should the mix be happening, but how well does it work?
Toil and Trouble
Toil & Trouble Burlesque (a company created in 2015 and dedicated specifically to Shakespearian burlesque) has devised a Bardian vamp called The (Unrequited) Love Show.
For each of the segments in The (Unrequited) Love Show, creative producer Burgundy Kate and her crew take a scene from Shakespeare and do two important things with it. First, they study and rehearse it, until they can give it a professional – and very theatrical — performance. Then they blow air on the coals of the characters’ motivations, until they erupt into dance.
The dances still owe much to Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, and Tempest Storm — but they also reach into areas newer to burlesque (or neo-burlesque), from ballet to gymnastics to aerial silk acrobatics. Each dance remains an expression of character — Malvolio’s shell-like costume splitting apart piece by piece, like his repressed persona; Caliban erupting as a snarling sexual daemon when accused of lusting after Prospero’s daughter Miranda; or Mistresses Page and Ford discovering one another while Falstaff, bound and ball-gagged, looks on. Toil & Trouble and its performers use dance as an integral extension of the story, expanding and illuminating it.
To Thine Own Cherry Be True
At Hollywood’s Three Clubs lounge, another company is braiding together the Bard and burlesque in a very different way. For the past few years, Cherry Poppins Productions has been producing comic extravaganzas, surprisingly like those that thrilled London 200 years ago.
On a tiny stage, the Poppins triple-threats recently sang, danced, and acted their way through Shakeslesque: To Thine Own Cherry Be True – which won “Best of the Fringe” at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Their burlesque follows a single wild fantasy woven from the plays (notably Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, and Romeo & Juliet – with bits of Titus in the pie), and studded with bad puns and wicked misquotes.
Like the early British burlesques, they’re all about parody. Nothing’s sacred, and it all moves at breakneck speed. Using apt popular songs, the crew stuffs the show with well more than a dozen stunning musical numbers on a stage barely bigger than a king-size bed, and all include strip-choreography in the classic style.
These are only two companies. But with work so exciting, could we be in store for a ribald renaissance?
On these small LA stages, the immortal Bard and our immoral (or at least irrepressible) fantasies are swirling together joyously, rather as they do in his comedies. And who can object? When artists blend the two genres together so deftly – and so differently – we can only say, with Will, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.”
Toil & Trouble Burlesque performs every few months with different Shakesperian themes. It’s current production, The Unrequited Love Show, have an encore performance will take place on July 24th, at Fais Do Do, 5252 West Adams Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90016. Visit toilandtroubleburlesque.com for more information.
Cherry Poppins Productions produces “musical theater burlesque”. Shakeslesque (which won several HFF 2017 Awards) has been extended, and will perform Thursdays at 8p.m. & Fridays at 10p.m. at Three Clubs, 1123 Vine St. Hollywood 90038 August 17th thru September 22nd. Tickets: www.eventbrite.com/e/