Flirting with (and stripping to) the taboos of the Prohibition era, the burlesque troupe The Peach Tartes—a luscious quintet of game, glamorous women—have unleashed their saucy new show in the intimate boudoir space of the Cutting Room. Cheekily dubbed Peel for Repeal, their latest romp is a winsome, lively, and irresistible evening of entertainment that loosely embraces the music, style, and aesthetic of the 1920s. The eclectic performances are tethered together by an enigmatic hostess, Miss Astrid, a brilliant comedienne who presides over the evening with a thick German accent and an endless stream of ripe verbal zingers. Declaring her plan to open a speakeasy named, aptly, “Shhhhh,” she introduces each scene as a possible act for her new club. Through her interaction with the audience (many of whom were more than eager to participate), Miss Astrid creates a speakeasy in the venue itself, ordering patrons to “drink the boooooze,” make noise, and, most of all, imbibe the intoxicating show.
And whether or not you want to take her advice, it’s all too easy to lose yourself in the decadent atmosphere. Sitting elbow to elbow at long tables alongside dedicated regulars who swilled cocktails and stared hard at the stage, gazing up at the dimmed chandeliers that provided a smoky, sultry ambience, I had to blink to remember that it was 2008, not 1928.
Burlesque, after all, is escapism at its finest; when we arrive at a place, Miss Astrid reminds us, we "are either running from or to something.” The talented Tartes—who are, variously, fine actors, dancers, and acrobats—maintain their part of the charade, appearing only as their alter egos (Scarlet O’Gasm, Veruca Honeyscotch, Rita MenWeep, Penny Dreadfulz, and Madam Rosebud) with no mention of their “real” names in the program.
Accompanied by bouncy, soulful, and brazen music, the women spool and twist their bodies to create meaning and tell stories. And the majority of these stories, of course, whether a soliloquy featuring a lonely Oklahoma girl or a flirtation between two silent-movie stars, arrive at the same skin-baring conclusion.
But showing skin will only get you so far, and the trick of this brand of storytelling, as the Peach Tartes have embraced with moxie and wit, lies in the creative steps you take to reveal yourself. Layered in stockings, camisoles, fringe, and tassels, each performer makes brilliant and often seductive use of creative props. (Take a moment to imagine the possibilities inherent in the broad curves of a liquor bottle or the sharp edges of a shovel.)
Given the group’s penchant for theatricality, it seems no accident that the most polished and entertaining numbers showcase the least amount of skin. At the top of the list is Veruca Honeyscotch’s high-flying routine. Devastated after the abrupt departure of her boyfriend, she removes only her gloves before climbing up two long scarlet curtains that hang from the ceiling. To the brassy, jazzy sounds of Ella Fitzgerald crooning “When I Get Low, I Get High,” Honeyscotch scales the drapes, winding and binding herself before unfurling and bending her body into various breathtaking contortions. She’s coy, commanding, and, remarkably, clothed.
Burlesque is certainly not for everyone, and as a feminist I was on high alert to sniff out any wisp of objectification. Instead, I found myself charmed by the good-natured, almost wholesome, attitude of this dynamic ensemble, who popped with personality and sweetly shrugged off the occasional musical miscue.
The show hurtles to an end all too quickly with a quick reference to the 1929 stock market crash. With its flimsy, uneven structure, the show itself is also something of a tease—a cluster of variety acts dominated by a mid-show raffle and obscured by the clinking of glasses. Still, Peel for Repeal accomplishes a tricky theatrical feat, one just as coveted in 2008 as it was in 1928: it leaves its audience wanting more.