Sunday, July 7, 2013

Planet Connections Review - "Velvet Rope"

By Jose Solis

Whenever trying to turn issues into compelling drama, artists usually tend to take the preachy route and forget all notions of nuance. The postcard and synopsis for Velvet Rope practically invite us to that with their mentions of empowerment and exploitation. Fortunately the show goes beyond the limitations of gender studies as academia and proves to be not only quite entertaining but also very effective in conveying its issues.

Joan (Alexis Kelley) is a college student majoring in Women’s Studies who decides to take a more hands-on approach to her university experience by becoming an undercover stripper at a local club. She figures if she can be near real strippers, their bosses and their clients she will be able to satisfy both her curiosity and her academic needs. She pretends to be an experienced dancer and believes that she will get the job the minute she walks in; however, she is highly disappointed when she realizes that there are women who are much better than she is at this.

She ends up begging the manager, Big D (Kimberlee Monroe) to let her work at the club and she finally gets a trial run. On her very first night at the club she ends up making almost a thousand dollars - more than any other girl - and realizing that this might not be as bad as she thought. After this the play becomes slightly more introspective as we often see the action revolving around Joan. She begins to realize that there is more than meets the eye to taking your clothes off for money and by the time the show is over we too leave with a different outlook, or at least one that challenges our preconceptions.

This is owed mostly to Kelley who finds a great balance between comedy and drama. Her Joan is somewhere between Nomi Malone and Joan of Arc; a modern creature who in the post feminist world has been taught that society shouldn’t be allowed to objectify her, even though she sometimes wants to be objectified to fulfill sexual desires. While the play tries a bit too hard to point out how smart it’s being about power dynamics (are the strippers or the audience in control?) its actual success goes beyond the world of sex for entertainment and becomes an allegory for art itself. Who has the power when we’re watching art? Is it the artist whose impersonal power has such a powerful effect on us? Or is it us who humanize the inherent blank slate-ness of every single art piece?

Velvet Rope makes for a clever use of sound, music and costume and of course it ends up also becoming a meta show which intends to dissect and analyze the world of stripping, when it itself is somewhat of a strip show. Playwright Celestine Rae, who also directed and produced the show, obviously had much to say and despite of this the show never feels bloated or self important. Joan tends to be a bit more on the symbolic side, but she is still imbued with enough heart to make us root for her. Rae’s own journey probably began like her heroine’s and in the process she too discovered that you can have fun while discussing serious matters. 

Velvet Rope
Written and directed by Celestine Rae

Featuring: Kimberlee Monroe, Azariah Gunn, Alexis Kelley, Samantha Strelitz, Brynn Alexander, Craig Colasanti

Jeminah Russell (Stage Manager)
Celestine Rae and Jeminah Russell (Set Designers)
Celestine Rae (Choreographer)

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