I spent most of 2007 dancing in The Sensuous Woman, comedian Margaret Cho’s boundary pushing, gender-bending burlesque and variety show. The production melded Margaret’s outrageous stand up comedy with classic as well as post-modern striptease plus a slew of hilarious song-and-dance numbers. “Sen Wo”, as we affectionately called it in homage to J-Lo, originally started as a one-off benefit show at the historic Los Angeles nightclub El Cid. It immediately sold out and we were asked to do a residency there, which lasted several months. That led to dates in San Francisco and an appearance on Fire Island, New York’s famed gay enclave. Eventually a tour was booked, which included a week in Chicago and a six-week Off Broadway run in New York City.
The show was wild by anyone’s standards. Margaret stripped langorously to classical opera until she was totally nude before parting her huge feathered fans to reveal a disturbingly realistic flaccid penis. Transgender comedian Ian Harvie’s set focused on his misadventures trying to get a bag of dildos through the TSA security checkpoint at an airport. Selene Luna, a 3’ 10” comedian and burlesque dancer known as “The Pocket Venus”, rode onstage in a vintage baby carriage before toddling around stripping out of a christening gown and frilly bonnet. Liam Sullivan performed his hit song Shoes as his teenage nerd-drag alter ego Kelly; queen-sized burlesque legend Dirty Martini did “The Patriot Act”, which concluded with her pulling an endless string of dollar bills out of her ass. Mustachioed dancer Ryan Heffington rampaged through Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana dressed in acid-washed 1980’s denim and a miniscule G-string, doing splits in over-the-knee platform boots before climbing over the chairs to assault audience members with uber-raunchy lap dances. In comparison, my Wizard Of Oz burlesque act as a slutty, stripping Dorothy Gale who gets molested by a Flying Monkey looked tame.
All prurient lunacy aside, the entire cast was always just a little stunned at the show’s popularity- who would’ve ever thought that that an audience made up of about ninety-five percent queer men would flock to a show which primarily featured women twirling tasseled pasties?
In order to up the ante even further, it was decided that for the tour, we’d add in a couple of Busby Berkely-esque group numbers for the opening and a grand finale. We moved into another residency, this time at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renburg Theater in Hollywood to woodshed the new, improved show before taking it on the road. We rehearsed at the Center through most of June and July, before finally moving into the theater itself for our dress and technical rehearsals. We were very pleased with the venue; in addition to state-of-the-art sound and lights, the Renburg featured modern plush chairs, which reclined for optimal audience comfort.
During our first tech rehearsal, Ian and I decided to go out into the middle of the house to see what the lighting looked like from the audience. Since it’s always difficult to know what the stage lighting looks like when you’re actually standing under it, we decided to take photos for reference. As we whipped out our smart phones, Margaret was onstage going through her “Chairman Meow” burlesque number. She was in mid-striptease, wearing a Chinese Army uniform, her twin braids peeking out from under her Mao hat.
“Hey, look at this,” Ian cried, perturbed, brandishing his phone under my nose,
“It looks like it’s snowing in here! ”
The photo he’d taken captured the entire theater as well as the stage, and the whole picture was chock full of orbs. Some people think that orbs-the white or translucent spheres that appear as anomalies on photos -are merely dust particles on the camera lens, but others believe they’re a visual manifestation of spirits. Many are convinced that when orbs show up on film, it’s a sign that angels are nearby.
As Ian aggressively dusted off his phone screen and camera lens, just in case of dust, I snapped a photo on my phone... and the resulting picture was exactly the same as his.
Ian cocked his head, arched an eyebrow and asked,
“Do you think these are orbs?”
We immediately both wondered out loud about the possibility of the Renburg being haunted, as many theaters are reputed to be. In fact, historically, so many theaters are alleged to be inhabited by ghosts that for the past decade, the famed New York Theater publication Playbill actually tracks- and publishes - sightings of apparitions and other reports of paranormal activity in it’s annual Broadway Yearbook. After a “spirited” discussion, we both decided that since the Renburg Theater was built recently, it probably wasn’t haunted after all.
Just then, the theater’s director Jon Imperato came up to us, asking if we were pleased with the venue. We assured him we were, and making small talk, Ian asked how many people the theater held. Jon’s answer stunned us into silence.
“ We hold five hundred, “ he said, making a sweeping gesture,
“...And every seat in here is dedicated to honor the memory someone who died of HIV or AIDS-related complications. There’s a plaque on the back of every chair.”
As Jon walked off to check on the lighting, Ian and I looked around. Indeed, every damn chair in the place had a plaque on it, with the name, birth and death dates of the individual it honored.
Glancing down at our phones to see the orb-filled photos once more, Ian and I locked eyes.
Ian wrinkled his forehead as he surveyed the theater. He nodded imperceptibly a few times as though he was processing his thoughts, then exhaled slowly and said enthusiastically,
“Well… I sure hope all you guys enjoy the show!”
The story you've just read is from my forthcoming book (Super) Natural Woman which will be published by Punk Hostage Press in 2016.
|The Sensuous Woman: left to right Ian Harvie, Margaret Cho, Dirty Martini,Ryan Heffington, Selene Luna, me|
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