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16 December 2007
Conceptual Burlesque Behind a Velvet Rope

Tom Sellar: New York Times

LATE on a recent Saturday night in Vauxhall, South London?s trendy gay area, a midget-size platinum blonde named Miss Cherry Ripe was performing a striptease to popular acclaim. The act was part of a weekly floor show at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, produced by performance artists known collectively as Duckie, which has acquired a devoted and diverse local following.

This week Duckie ? a loosely affiliated group of burlesque dancers, singers and entertainers who call themselves ?postgay? ? arrives in New York with a far more lavish affair called ?C?est Duckie!,? performing from Thursday through Jan. 19 at the C.S.V. Cultural Center on the Lower East Side. ?One of our gimmicks is turning nightclubs into theaters and theaters into nightclubs,? said Simon Casson, the group?s producer and raffish impresario.

?C?est Duckie!? reflects a French influence, he said, in keeping with the troupe?s aspirations for a more stylish showcase than the ?genuine seediness? of their Vauxhall club.

?I took everyone to the Moulin Rouge in Paris,? Mr. Casson said. ?And then I said, ?Let?s make our own South London version, with dancing girls and singing, but with a postmodern kind of edge to it.? So this is what they came up with.?

Patrons in New York will be asked to observe a dress code of ?swanky evening attire.? The audience, capped at around 100 people a night, sits at 10 tables. Each table gets 50 printed Duckie dollars (at a dollar for Duckie-dollar rate). As Champagne begins to flow, guests receive menus listing available acts and their Duckie dollar prices. Together customers choose ? and pay for ? a few sideshows to supplement the three big song-and-dance numbers on the stage, which are included in the price of admission.

Choices range from ventriloquism and neo-vaudeville to the category-defying. In the spirit of giving people what they really want, Duckie?s menu primarily consists of acts that are sexually explicit, proudly exploitative or openly offensive, most of them unprintable here. Mentionable offerings from an early London incarnation included ?An Emotional Striptease,? ?Stilettos of Death? and ?Slo-Mo Supermarket Slag.?

For audience members preferring tamer acts, Mr. Casson recommended ?Be Insulted? because customers ?get blindfolded and called all the names under the sun.? In New York other options might include ?Japanese Housewife? (?She?s on drugs, and she?s obsessed with cleaning and likes Gucci?) or an elaborate James Bond scenario involving George W. Bush; Tony Blair; Diana, princess of Wales; Elton John; and a ring of ?perverts.?

Depending on the evening, Duckie?s menu may also feature a ?special of the day?: local nightclub performers in cameo appearances. Duckie regulars include Marisa Carnesky, Joshua Sofaer, Kazuko Hohki and Miss High Leg Kick.

About halfway through the evening the buying and selling of performances spirals into consumer frenzy, and things begin to disintegrate, changing the audience-performer dynamic.

Still, ?it?s not like there?s a start to the show and an end to the show,? Mr. Casson said. ?It?s all the show. It?s not a cabaret. It uses cabaret, but actually it?s a conceptual theater show.?

The troupe specializes in satiric swipes, said Vallejo Gantner, artistic director of Performance Space 122, which is presenting the monthlong run with a commercial co-producer, Foster Entertainment. ?It?s all about Broadway. It?s all about commercial theater. Merchandising. And it?s about kind of crazy sex.?

Duckie received a 2004 Olivier Award for the show when it played at the mainstream Barbican Center in London under the title ?C?est Barbican!,? earning accolades even from staid observers. (Sarah Hemming of The Financial Times called it ?deliciously camp and wonderfully inventive.?) But Mr. Gantner does not see anything safe about the production. ?It absolutely goes and attacks everything and everyone and itself,? he said.

Supported by grants from the British Council and Arts Council England, ?C?est Duckie!? has also played in Berlin and Tokyo, as well as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Sydney Opera House.

Part of the appeal for the New York producers was the opportunity to do something big and splashy in a location away from P.S. 122?s aging East Village building. ?C?est Duckie!? will be mounted at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center, known by its C.S.V. initials, at Suffolk and Rivington Streets.

?They want a run-down, faded old kind of room that feels like a nightclub that?s been kicked to death,? Mr. Gantner said. ?It?s already an area where we?re all expecting to go out and have a beer.? The site will be transformed by the artists? simulation of glamour. ?Red curtain, red velvet, plush chairs, tables, barmen ? it?s going to be fabulous,? he said.

Mr. Gantner, who last year opened the popular Spiegeltent, an Old World beer garden and performance space near South Street Seaport, in a venture independent of P.S. 122, said he hopes ?C?est Duckie!? will be another project reinvigorating New York theater with variety and atmosphere.

?We need to start finding work that has rigor and integrity ? or a total lack of it, like this ? that takes theater out of black boxes because they?re killing everybody,? he said. ?It?s killing the vibe, making it a totally predetermined, predictable 90-minute experience. That is not actually, I think, what people want.?

Mr. Casson characterizes the show as ?a cynical Christmas crowd pleaser and a triumph of table dancing over bourgeois theater.? Despite an emphatically sentimental seasonal song tacked on to the finale, Duckie?s critique of capitalism through erotic antics is definitely geared toward grown-ups seeking relief from family holiday fare.

?It?s all about putting out and being a tart in the most charming way you can,? Mr. Casson said. ?It?s about making money and having fun, and that?s what New York is about, isn?t it??

The company?s shows ?are about playing with the fiction of real life,? he said. ?The fiction is ?We?re all at the Moulin Rouge.? Only it?s a little bit artier than the Moulin Rouge. And more interesting.?

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