Every night brings a flashback to Times Square’s golden age: a girl on a trapeze swings from the rafters of a dive bar, a drag queen pulls a rabbit out of a hat, a silver-heeled Vassar grad strips down to a glittery bodysuit. In theaters and cabarets and storefronts on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg, a live-performance scene is thriving, with a profusion and vitality not seen since the construction of the Cyclone. The new scene cross-pollinates vaudeville, opera, the circus, burlesque—often all on the same stage, and the growing audiences these shows attract confirm New York’s status as the city that, more than any other, loves its misfits, from seven-foot-tall Scotty the Blue Bunny, who dons a blue rabbit costume and heels, to the skinny boy self-remade into René Risqué, International Man of Pleasure, to the elf-eared girl in a polyester gown who calls herself Reverend Jen. Here’s our Who’s Who and What’s What of downtown’s wild, original, and very New York theater scene.
Broadway, here’s a shtick in the eye.
Vaudeville, the geeky, wisecracking step-brother of legit theater, disappeared for decades, but it’s back in full force, packing them in everywhere from Todd Robbins’s Sideshow Saturday Night at the Soho Playhouse to Chashama, the nonprofit arts complex next to the Condé Nast building. These days, the old-school yuckety-yuck of Jimmy Durante is fused with the showmanship of P. T. Barnum to form an irony-free hybrid of real talent and roar-of-the-greasepaint showbiz of which no one thought Gen Xers capable. The Old World exerts a strong pull on today’s vaudevillians. Stop a juggler or fire-breather after the show and they can tell you the history of their act, their nineteenth-century heroes, the 50 books you should read.
Heirs to Barnum’s sleaze empire include Circus Amok and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, run by Stephanie Monseu (ringmistress Philomena) and Keith Nelson (neon-tube-swallowing Mr. Pennygaff), as well as the Wau Wau Sisters (pictured), Adrienne Truscott and Tanya Gagné, who define their act as “a bawdy concoction of acrobatics, cigarettes, smarts, and desperation.”
Hey babe, take a long walk on the wild side.
New Yorkers think they know from drag, but the art of cross-dressing has gotten a lot more sophisticated in recent years. “It’s not enough to just put a dress on anymore,” says Charles Busch, who, like Ridiculous Theatrical Company founder Charles Ludlam and John Epperson (Lypsinka), is among the pioneers of smart, original drag. Epperson seconds Busch’s assessment: “I agree with Charles—you’ll still see lip-syncing to Mariah Carey, but for a drag performer to have any kind of longevity now, you need something unique.” In other words, you gotta have a gimmick.
One act to keep an eye on is the painfully funny (if often frightening) duo Kiki and Herb, who have a new show, Coup de Théatre, in previews at the Cherry Lane in the West Village. Justin Bond plays the drunk, aging nightclub singer Kiki opposite Kenny Mellman as Herb, Kiki’s accompanist. They’re best known for their Christmas shows, at which Kiki has been known to tell the Little Match Girl tale while throwing lit matches into the crowd.
Shequida is a Juilliard-trained soprano who performs everywhere from the gay club Barracuda in Chelsea to the performance-art bastion P.S. 122 in the East Village. Supastar Flotilla DeBarge does race commentary—at one show, she sang “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” to a cotton tree and then used it to blot her makeup. The glamorous Cashetta recently turned to magic. Frequently decorating drag shows and parties are the Dazzle Dancers, who have been performing “for the upper and lower echelons of Downtown Society” since 1995. Says founder Mike Albo, “We began as a joke dance troupe, but soon found that being as nude and glittered as possible was important for our city’s quality of life.”
Only a boob couldn’t see the appeal.
It’s not like nudity has ever been scarce in the naked city. But today, it’s hard to find a hip bar without at least one night a week devoted to buxom girls in blue eye shadow, glittery heels, and pasties. Mondays, they take over Galapagos in Williamsburg; Wednesdays, Low in Dumbo and the new Show Nightclub on 41st Street; Thursdays, Marion’s on the Bowery; Fridays, “Burlesque on the Beach” on Coney Island; Saturdays, the eye-patch-sporting Miss Astrid (Katherine Valentine) hosts the “Va Va Voom Room” at Fez on Lafayette. The World Famous Pontani Sisters copresent the New York Burlesque Festival downtown in May.
It was Giuliani’s crackdown on lap-dancing, at least in part, that prompted the resurgence of burlesque in the early nineties. “When he did that,” says Keith Nelson, “performers started playing with the idea of what’s legal and permissible.” Certainly Julie Atlas Muz straddles the line between stripping and performance art; one routine ends with a toy astronaut landing on a naked Muz and planting a flag in her “moon.”
The emcee of choice is the Jackie Gleason–esque Murray “Howya doin’ kid?” Hill, who credits the rough economy and global tension with the rise of burlesque-as-escapism. “Let’s face it,” he says, “I’m certainly not going to be depressed if I watch *BOB* mix and pour a martini with her boobs!”
Misfits, microphones, multimedia marvels
If Andys Warhol and Kaufman were just arriving in New York, chances are they would head straight for the Lower East Side open-mike scene, where performers have dubbed themselves, only semi-ironically, “art stars.” Budweiser tallboys in hand, they perform monologues, play music, read from their journals, or, more often, do something that defies categorization.
The proud parents of the scene are Faceboy, who started his Sunday night open-mike nine years ago, and his elf-eared friend, troll-museum founder Reverend Jen Miller, whose Wednesday night Anti-Slam began seven years ago. Both are currently at Collective Unconscious on Ludlow Street and well-rehashed on Girlbomb.com. “Real, open, and often drunk, the art stars range in age from 18 to 88,” says Miller, who also calls herself Sex Symbol for the Insane. Among the cast of regulars are Master Lee, who often performs as Salvador Dali, and the artist and musician Michael Portnoy, who performs as the characters Professor Kiffy, “a choreographer of jokes,” and XAR (pronounced ksar), a solo “majestic-electro” band.
“We are like a giant dysfunctional family that anyone can be part of. You can be the biggest dork, freak, or outcast in the world, and at the Anti-Slam, we will love you for it.” It’s like performance artist Penny Arcade, alum of both Warhol’s Factory and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, said the other night at Fez: “New York: If you can make it here, you can’t make it anywhere else.” And why would you ever want to?