“Getcha little something that you can't get at home.” For me, that sampled-from-life line in "Pasties & a G-String," Tom Waits' seedy strip-show pitch, has always defined modern burlesque. Every show will include pretty girls in sparkling skimpies. That's a given. But it's best when there are surprises. Maybe something strange, esoteric, or exotic. Or antic and ludicrous. Or mystifying. Or artistic. Or educational. Or all of the above. The folks behind the Pretty Things Peepshow who'll be performing their classic girly show at Nocturnal on Thursday, May 14th, take a somewhat like-minded view of these baser arts. At least they've toured with a contortionist and a sword box.
Burlesque, the word we so closely associate with extraordinary examples of female pulchritude bumping and grinding and twirling its way to obscurity (and tickling every man's fancy along the way) actually suggests a kind of studied foolery and excessive caricature. Burlesque evolved from Burla and Lazzo, which are improvised and scripted gags employed by the populist, often quite obscene practitioners of Commedia del Arte, a highly physical approach to public performance that flourished in Italy from the 14th through the 18th centuries. Commedia performers inserted incendiary topical content into the mouths of grotesque clowns, like an ignorant scholar and cowardly soldier arguing over who's the hungriest. That scene might end with both trading a hard-won sandwich for sex. Or with a servant dropping his pants to extract a cherry from his behind. Good times.
Burlesque, in all it's sinful and skinful glory, was at the soul, brain, and the outrageous balls of avant-garde theater in the 19th and 20th centuries. But the striptease-based burlesque shows which came back into vogue at the turn of the most recent century (in Memphis too) don't have much to do with any of that. Contemporary burlesque is more of a celebration of the female form in all shapes and sizes as defined by fashion in the 1940s, ’50s, and '60s. All of it set to a raunchy rockabilly, and Las Vegas Grind soundtrack. It is what it is. And very much what it was.
At the Pretty Things show, you'll see a parade of awesome last-century hairstyles hovering over simple 1950's-style dresses, which hide cute antique bathing suits that in turn conceal itty-bitty sparkly things. You'll see girls who look like they stepped out of a pinup by Alberto Vargas or Gil Elvgren. Or from an installment of Varietease. There will be some shimmy, and some shake. Perhaps a tattooed lady will eat and blow fire. Cheesecake, cheesecake, cheesecake. You'll see a lot of girls trying to imitate the inimitable Ms. Candy Barr, a blond Kennedy-era bombshell who consorted with gangsters, movie stars, and assassins, and who deserves a biopic every bit as much as the notorious Bettie Page.
But will anything on tap measure up to this piece of magnificent pornographic puppetry by astonishing Lorraine Lane? Will the Pretty Things really offer you “a little something that you can't get at home?” Or over the Internet?
Guess there's only one way to find out.