As the cast readies for the year’s final performance of Barbarellesque (at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance on November 22nd), Kay Sera, co-producer and one of the show’s Barbarellas, talks about creating “an ecdysiast theatrical experience.”
Barbarella, the 1968 sci-fi camp classic starring Jane Fonda, was ridiculed and reviled in its day. But it’s now recognised as having created imagery that continues to influence pop culture. Even the New York Times — which dismissed the film back in the day as “a special kind of mess” — later called Barbarella “the most iconic sex goddess of the 60s.”
The film itself is so good/bad, it’s practically burlesque already. The opening scene features a zero-G striptease (no pasties or G-string for Jane!), which was absolutely scandalous and is still quite titillating. We saw a great opportunity to bring to the stage characters and situations that are both extremely sex-positive and exceptionally silly.
It’s easy for some to write Barbarella off as an intergalactic space kitten with no real substance. But when you look back on it with a contemporary lens, she was a pretty powerful woman. She was out exploring the galaxy by herself and when she discovered that physical pleasure could be taken from a man, she was all over it! So let’s not slut-shame her; Barbarella knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to get it! And we felt that that kind of spirit is intrinsic to today’s burlesque and neo-burlesque performance.
Is Barbarellesque ‘nerdlesque’?
Even Jo Jo Stiletto, the self-proclaimed Professor of Nerdlesque, is reticent to define completely the term ‘nerdlesque’. She recently referenced LA Weekly writer Erin Broadley as saying that “…it is Warholesque, pop-art theatre.” By that standard, yes — particularly the theatrical element. We bill the show as “an ecdysiast theatrical experience.”
Barbarellesque is not ‘themed’, per se, nor does it pay homage; it’s not separate acts tied together by an emcee. It is essentially the film presented live onstage but with original striptease, song and dance numbers highlighting the most iconic scenes and created in such a way as to move the narration forward. With the exception of cutting the role of Professor Ping, the show’s script is almost unchanged from the film’s. The original was so wonderfully awful that it required very little refinement to make it work.
You have a relatively large cast, including not one but four Barbarellas. Why?
Jane Fonda’s Barbarella changed costumes eight times in the movie. Eight! It seemed only right to have multiple Barbarellas — Barbarelli? — in our stage version to accommodate at least some of those well-known outfits!
The Baltimore/Washington/Richmond area has a robust talent pool of unique performers, each with his or her own style, specialty and appeal. In doing something different like Barbarellesque, we wanted to showcase as many as possible.
With only so many speaking roles, we also invited regional performers to participate as labyrinth prisoners, the citizens of SoGo, the revolutionary forces and the Great Tyrant’s guards. These cast members are critical to keeping the action flowing seamlessly. For example, when Barbarella’s ship is crashing, they come on stage, tipping back and forth like they, too, are in motion, and adjust set pieces to transition the scene from Alpha 7 interior to Ice Planet Weir exterior. All the while avoiding a go-go-dancing Barbarella!
How do the set changes work?
Our sets were designed basic on the relatively simple — and low-budget — aesthetic of the film. We used found objects as much as possible, and solicited from local building museums and event companies anything they could spare. We make simple but clear transitions in several ways, from rotating set pieces, to digital projection of backgrounds from the film, to unique soundscapes created by our sound engineer. Our non-speaking roles also ‘sell’ the new scenes by acting dejected and lethargic when setting up and wandering the labyrinth, for example, or panic-stricken when the evil Matmos has been released. (And the Matmos is created by a dual set of machines that blow smoke-filled bubbles into the audience.)
Do you have plans for other ‘live on-stage’ interpretations?
Barbarellesque has definitely struck a chord among sci-fi fans; we’ve managed to bring some new people to the audience because of their love of the film. Some have suggested we tackle Zardoz, a particularly dreadful film featuring a particularly delightful Sean Connery in what may be the best and most impractical warrior costume ever. Other fans have proposed Flash Gordon, Logan’s Run, Brazil… elements from all of which have, of course, been showcased in one way or another in a number of burlesque shows. So right now we’re focused on Barbarellesque, but given the overall geek-quotient of our production team and cast, it seems likely that one day someone is going to say, “You know what horrible movie would make a great burlesque show?” and we’ll do it. I’m kind of hoping it’s 2010’s Cher nightmare Burlesque. Metaburlesque.
Barbarellesque blasts off at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance on Saturday, November 22. For more information, visit www.Barbarellesque.com.
Barbarellesque Burlesque Returns to Baltimore by Kay Sera.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.