The rube Wade (Mark Pagan) wanders onto the stage. In a pitch-perfect South Dakota accent – straight out of “Fargo” – he explains that normally he volunteers for his Church of the Nazarene during the summer, but this year his mother suggested he come down here to help his cousin, Ms. Whiskeysours (Lynda Laughlin) and her show. On cue, Ms. Whiskeysours appears, a bottle of what appears to be Johnny Walker Black in hand. She gives Wade a glass – to “hydrate” him, she says. Wade gulps it down.
Ms. Whiskeysours explains that in this show, beautiful women are going to dance and “reveal skin”. She shows what this means by slipping one of the straps on her dress down below her shoulder. We holler appreciatively, as is the tradition, and as we have been instructed to do. And after this tempting description, Wade introduces the act – and six men and a woman step on to the stage. They are improvisers.
Brothers and sisters, welcome to burlesque, as it was practiced at the beginning of the last century – raucous comedy, interspersed with genteel stripping. Many great comics – notably W.C. Fields – got their starts in burlesque, and it is lovely to see folks who are maintaining this tradition. Of course, they didn’t have improvisational comedy back in Fields’ day, except when it was occasioned by necessity, but art changes to fit the change in society. We don’t use the same jokes, either.
These improvisers (Sarah Donnelly, Sean Ellis, Mark Berman, Kevin Gauthier, Justus Hammond, Shawn Westfall, and Mikael Johnson) are very good. They ask for a volunteer to describe a bad date, and a brave and foolish soul tells the story of a blind date he experienced at a North Carolina Waffle House. “Matilda” looked, he says, like the twin sister of the 007 villain Blofeld. The date was so bad, our volunteer avers, that he was obliged to call his office on the pay phone (he worked as an in-house counsel to a tobacco company) and ask them to summon him back to work so he could get out of the Waffle House.
Then the improvisers go to work. They reproduce the phone call (“You want me to get you out of the Waffle House again?” the boss shouts.) They look at the date from Matilda’s point of view. (“He works for a tobacco company,” she tells her friend.) They have our protagonist summoned to a meeting with his boss, who bawls him out for his lousy dates. (“I’m making you look bad?” our hapless bad-dater asks.) The improvisers even summon up 007, who promises to bring down “Pushyface” while staggering around with his vodka martini. Things go badly for Bond, who is now drunk most of the time, and old; Q cans him, and he ends up working at a Best Buy.
The sketch plays itself out and Cherrie Sweetbottom, Flora Bush and Polly Amorous, athletic and lithe, mount the stage. (I do not believe that these are their real names.) They shimmy gracefully, shaking glitter on us from their feathered boas. They gradually remove articles of clothing until they stand before us in pasties and panties. Because the heat and humidity in the Fort Fringe Tent resembles that in the Amazon River Delta, some of the clothing sticks to their bodies and their movements are a little less fluid than they might otherwise be, but it is all right.
The improvisers return. “Improvisation is like stripping,” one of them explains. “It involves risk-taking…”
“Take off your clothes!” a young lady shouts from the audience.
And so the second sketch evolves: a dozen variants of people taking off their clothes. Some of these misfire but others are very funny. We end with a sketch involving two men who have gone to a strip club in defiance of their fiancées’ wishes, and now seek out a hotel which rents rooms by the hour so they can shower the glitter off. They finally find one, only to discover one of the fiancées leaving the room as they enter.
Improv is fun to watch, and instructional; each player is in the dark about his comrade’s intention at the beginning of the sketch, so you can see how he reads it, and where he goes with it, and how the other player reacts to his reaction. It is the ultimate teambuilding exercise, and also a great clue into the heart of acting.
As good as this improv is, it is done in a little bit by the venue. The tent is open to ambient noise even when the flaps are closed, and the acoustics are not good. Many of the lines are hard to distinguish, and it is sometimes difficult to follow the improvised plots as a result.
Ms. Sweetbottom, Ms. Bush and Ms. Amorous return for a last dance – Ms. Bush’s involving an encounter with a major-party Presidential candidate. I won’t tell you who it is, except to say that it is not Barak Obama.
And then off we go into the smothering night, eighty minutes after it all began. The one-hour hotels are going to be doing a good business tonight.
Burlesque + Belly Laughs has 5 performances, the last one, July 28, 2012, inside the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent, Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Tim rates this 4 out of a possible 5.