*Photos: David Dyte
by Tom Tenney
New York is a city that recycles itself, and those who have lived here long enough have become accustomed to the life cycles of landscapes, buildings, businesses, and cultural institutions. New York is in a constant state of metamorphosis; it’s just how this city rolls, and we either roll right along with it or we leave. As we get older, though, we’re occasionally haunted by a nostalgia for a time that seemed somehow “better,” a time when the city delivered exactly what we expected of it, and it’s just these moments that give us pause to reflect on exactly what our expectations are, and how they may have changed. Radical Vaudeville, Surf Reality’s monthly burlesque/variety shows at the Kraine Theatre feels reflective like that, like a ghost that evinces an intangible vital energy of another time still lingering in the ether.
From 1993-2003, Surf Reality existed as a 2nd floor performance loft on the Lower East Side, and was considered by many to be one of the epicenters of the downtown alternative performance scene. The space was a ramshackle black box that made one feel more like they were crashing a secret kegger in Jeff Spicoli’s garage than attending a night of theatre. Indeed, what came to be called the Art Star scene was an endless party of creative folks of all ages, smearing their DIY blood and guts all over downtown Manhattan. Whether producing dirty sketch shows, performing as perverted priests or gay pimps, or holding proms and pageants, the decade between 1995-2005 was a movable feast of the kind of lurid anarchy that couldn’t have existed anywhere but the LES. Any “respectable” joint would’ve 86’d these punks and barred them for life. But the party sustained these artists, and the bawdiness wasn’t merely juvenile prurience, but an alternative burlesque that made a lot of sense for the times.
The New York that many of the LES art stars had migrated to in 80’s and early 90’s was a city that promised a sobering shot of reality. It was a New York of drug dealers in the park, of ubiquitous danger and squats and tranny bars and crack dens. It was Lou Reed’s New York, and those artists didn’t come here to “make it,” they came here to live it. When Giuliani came along in 1994, ushering in an era of “quality of life” campaigns, of raids on porn theaters and strip joints, of the homeless and other undesirables being swept under the rug or out of the city entirely – burlesque became an imperative form of cultural critique. Taking off your clothes was an act of political defiance.
Radical Vaudeville does its best to revive the energy of that time, and comes about as close as one could hope. The 90-minutes of rapid-fire music, burlesque, and sketch comedy delighted the audience, which was a slightly older, more restrained crowd than those that partook of the nightly mayhem at Surf Reality, and the Kraine theatre lacks the transient feel of the old venue. But still, as variety shows go in NYC, you won’t find better than this. The performers, running the gamut from puppeteers and poets to full-frontal performance/burlesque artists, might not seem as “radical,” per se, as they might have been considered 10 years ago, but are now professionals with finely polished sets, and the sexual content feels less defiant and contains a self-consciousness that acknowledges that times have changed. The evening was expertly punctuated with interstitial material by the hostess Gabrielle St. Eve and her sidekick Amanda, a grotesquely made-up and scantily clad “burlesque clown” who managed to turn cleaning up in between acts into sublimely titillating performance art.
But it was the final act of the evening, an improvised participatory set by Fritz Donnelly, that threw open the gates of hell and let those impetuous ghosts of the past come rushing in. Unfiltered, rude and reckless, Donnelly wrangled the entire house into a chaotic, Living Theatre-esque communion, creating a writhing mass of “energy” with the audience – from the back of the house to those who had been dragged onstage – as they chanted self-assigned spirit names. The experience was reminiscent of performance artist Michael Portnoy (of ‘Soy Bomb’ fame) and as the audience thrashed with ecstasy, and the artist, of course, removed his several layers of clothing, the spirit of Surf filled the room.
Maybe, I thought, the party still has a few stubborn drunks who refuse to leave.
Radical Vaudeville. Every last Thursday of the month at 10:30 PM at The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street, NYC). Ongoing. http://www.radicalvaudeville.com
Tom Tenney is an Assistant Professor in the Media Studies program at Hofstra and recent contributor to the forthcoming academic anthology on Remix — The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies