How far would you go to save a struggling burlesque house? It’s a question at the heart of Pinky Swear Productions’ The Last Burlesque, playing now at the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Springer Theatre until July 25th, before heading into a pre-planned extension at the newly-refurbished Trinidad Theater at the Logan Fringe Arts Space through August 15th.
It’s well worth the extended run. The Last Burlesque, by Stephen Spotswood, is a steamy, sultry, and strikingly well-crafted romp through a burlesque’s backstage, where avant-garde performance and counter-cultural expression coalesce in a community far from ordinary, yet instantly familiar.
The place is Val and Vera’s Valley of Burlesque, Sideshow, and Assorted Mischief. It’s a storied establishment with a varied cast of characters—the freaks and oddballs and escape artists who’ve found a home in the unencumbered expression of sideshow performance, and the comforting embrace of the matronly Vera (a richly-layered Vanessa Bradchulis), the outfit’s last remaining proprietress.
But the times are changing, and this genre of performance which reigned strong at the fringes now seems to be a relic. Vera’s bills are piling up and the fate of the house is in question when her prodigal daughter, the tightly-wound performance studies professor, Darcy (Katrina Clark), returns home to the stage.
The Last Burlesque
by Stephen Spotswood
Directed by: Amber Jackson
Details and tickets
It’s a conceit not wholly original, but splendidly-realized by director Amber Jackson, who has created a production that feels in a league of its own at Capital Fringe. An impressive set by Brian J. Gillick forms a reflective backdrop, adding an element of refracted surrealism to the macabre performance, while Liz Gossens’ richly-layered costumes (everything from boas to corsets to tasseled-bikinis) add texture to a well-crafted world. Finely-tuned moments of heightened movement, choreographed by Katrina Hilleard, compliment the more traditional dance to round out the full experience of Vera’s oddball cast, as we move with them from public performance to private pastime.
Jackson’s production is confidently staged and squarely surefooted, with an eclectic and well-equipped cast as varied as the characters they portray. The Last Burlesque flits easily between the intimate drama and the fantastic performance, with a series of finely-tuned punctuating interludes (a straightjacket escape; a lesson on handling one’s nipple-tassels). It’s a genuine blend of the hardship of the outcasts, and the joy that unites them—delightfully cemented by a company playing at its best in this capable ensemble. It’s a professional-grade show under any circumstances, but to run it during a festival under such unforgiving technical requirements is a feat. It’s a production not to be missed.