Cyndi Freeman and Brad Lawrence are accomplishing their mission: to bring the lowbrow entertainment of yesterday to the highbrow viewers of today.
By Paul Dervis
If it’s the first week in September, I must be at Hotsy Totsy Burlesque’s new revue down at Soho’s Slipper Room, 167 Orchard St, New York, NYC. In past years I have seen the troupe lampoon everything from Mad Men to The Big Lebowski, so this year it was no surprise that they tackled Britain’s sacred cow of sci-fi, Doctor Who. No need to actually be a devotee of the show to understand the goings-on…after all, this company, which appears monthly at the venue, does not paint with subtle hues.
Hotsy Totsy Burlesque was founded and is headlined by Boston’s own Cyndi Freeman who, along with her stage partner husband Brad Lawrence, keeps the risqué action moving. The shows are co-produced by a fellow who goes by the name of Joe the Shark; he stands out on the street before the productions like a carnival barker. Despite the humorous packaging, the company is seriously attempting to resuscitate burlesque; the goal is to connect the traditions of stripping that died in the mid-’60s (when the genre was done in by feminism) with material that satisfies the entertainment-driven appetites of today’s well-heeled Manhattan Millennials. Judging from the look at the crowd on the night I attended, the refurbishment is clearly working. Besides the fact that it was impossible to get a seat in the packed venue (they held one for me, Thank God), a cursory look at the audience revealed that well over half were female: at least two thirds looked as if they had dropped in from their Wall Street corner offices. Still, there was a smattering of older gents who could easily have spent their youth in the darkened corners of Boston’s now extinct Scollay Square. And, of course, all brought plenty of singles to stuff into various pieces of lingerie.
The doings in the Doctor Who show were a bit more unwieldy than the variations on Mad Men, a piece that lent itself perfectly to parody, not to mention the inevitable stripping off of those ’60s expensive outfits. With this production, we anticipate the performers eventually disrobing from the likes of space suits and alien heads. Funny…but not quite as provocative. Lawrence and Freeman (as Cherry Pitz, her constant stage persona), and the good Doctor find themselves challenged with having to come up with smooth intros to a storyline that is supposed to knit the acts together. Then again, Hotsy Totsy Burlesque depends on audience participation to keep the action moving, and this time was no exception — viewers kept the joint jumping.
Each act opens with a Go-Go dancer bumping and grinding as an avalanche of single dollar bills come sailing her way. The troupe has a surplus of recruits, so the dancers rotate. The Go-Go Girl this time around was Gogo Incognito…a name I doubt was on her birth certificate. Other dancers in the production included Raina Bow and Galatea Stone. The show stopper performer was, of course, Cherry Pitz herself. Freeman and Lawrence are well on their way to accomplishing their mission: to bring the lowbrow entertainment of yesterday to the highbrow viewers of today.
I also attended (at the Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival) the world premiere of Alpha 66 (through September 14), a piece set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Written by Robby Ramos and directed by Marion Elaine, the play centers around three siblings who face their fates in a darkened detention center somewhere in Cuba. One, Papo (played by playwright Robby Ramos) is a prodigal son who left his family years earlier in order to pursue a career in Castro’s army. He and fellow cohort Madre (Aminta De Lara) have been given the task of breaking down Papo’s brother and sister. Their mission is to have them confess to crimes against the regime. Papo’s loyalty is clearly being tested, and after much gnashing of teeth, he is ultimately unsuccessful….but, without giving away the climax, let’s just say Madre does not fail.
The performances in this ninety minute show are haunting, tapping into the dark side of human nature, conveying our fear of violence as well as our hunger for it. If only Ramos’s drama possessed the same sense of complexity.
The problem with the script is that it mounts the soapbox and never gets off. Plays should have a point of view, but not to the point that it gets in the way of the richness of the characterizations. As Ramos’ agenda grows in importance the nuanced acting of the cast begins to mean less and less. We grow to care about these figures, which is a credit to the performers. But we never get to KNOW them because the heavy-handed message gets in the way.
Besides the four Cuban characters, there is a DJ in Miami. His words are piped into the prison, keeping both Papo and company and the audience abreast of the international crisis that’s erupting just outside of the detainment center. The political irony makes for effective dramatics, and David Wasson has his ’60s announcer’s cadences down just right. If only the playwright hadn’t decided to hammer his points home.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe