This last week marked the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA for short). Naturally the best way to commemorate such a momentous occasion is with a burlesque show! I read a bit about this event online, and with every word I read, the more intrigued I became. Hosted by Mat “Sealboy” Fraser, featuring some of New York’s most prominent burlesque performers and other acts, both able-bodied and disabled, this was a show that I simply could not pass up.
It’s not just my newfound love of burlesque that prompted this interest. This past fall, I read an article called something like “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness.” The author was a queer woman who had cerebral palsy. One focus of the piece was that people with disabilities are assumed to be devoid of sexual desire, as though their situation renders a basic human need and desire irrelevant. I was somewhat horrified to realize that I was guilty of the same assumption. So now, hearing about disabled burlesque performers excited me. This was going to be an act of rebellion, a radical reclaiming of sexual identity and agency! And that, it seems to me, is what really lies at the heart of neo-burlesque: the philosophy that everyone is desirable, and everyone belongs.
I was not disappointed.
Having bought my tickets in advance, I arrived at Le Poisson Rouge around 6:30, which is when they said the doors would be opening. The club wasn’t letting people in yet, but that allowed me to get a good look at the rest of the audience. There were people in wheelchairs, queer girls and guys, some men and women who looked to be over 60, a few Asians and African-Americans—by far the most diverse burlesque crowd in my experience. The other disabled patrons assuaged the little voice in the back of my head that feared that the show would be partly a freak show, where an able-bodied audience treated the disabled performers as curiosities. Also in the house were the fabulous burlesque performers Dirty Martini and Jo Boobs—the fangirl in me shrieked and jumped up and down upon noticing and recognizing them, but the normal person in me let them enjoy their night.
In any case, Le Poisson Rouge is a suitably dark and sketchy venue, a basement cabaret space lit mostly by red and purple lights. The tables had charming little tea lights, and the bar was well-stocked, but I chose to abstain for the night. I wanted to be unaffected by anything but the show.
I appreciated that the performers were walking around amongst the audience. It gave me a chance to admire some costumes, and then realize “Oh shit! That’s Sealboy in the leather vest and skirt!” I don’t know how I didn’t recognize him right away with his distinctive arms, but that’s that. I felt the same about Tigger, who was dressed up as “Tiny Tigg,” a self-proclaimed “fictional Victorian lad” with an atrocious Cockney accent, complete with leg brace.
Honestly, the only way I can describe the show itself is as pure burlesque. The first performer was Ms. Tickle, whom I’ve written about before as being phenomenally gorgeous. This time, she went the opposite route. Ms. Tickle entered in a fabulous ball gown, flouncing and fluttering about. She had a full-length mirror onstage, and a large, bright red apple on one side. Princess Ms. Tickle admired took a bite of the apple, and soon transformed into a grotesque hag-version of herself. She applied a huge false nose, shredded her platinum-blond wig to reveal a raggedy white one underneath, added big fake ears, and when she removed her bodice and skirt, revealed lopsided breasts and a gigantic ass. Ms. Tickle turned several standards on their head—usually it’s the hag that turns into the princess. And, of course, usually the more clothes that come off, the steamier the show becomes. Ms. Tickle flipped it all on its head.
After Ms. Tickle, things got really crazy. It’s a good thing that Mat urged us all to leave our political correctness at the door.
Comedian Liz Carr gave a blisteringly funny standup comedy set from her wheelchair, commenting on the absurdities of her life and people’s reactions to her. At the end of her set, she invited the entire audience to “crip out” with her—to do anything at all that meant “cripple” to them, including but not limited to facial or body contortions and grotesque grunts. I found it fascinating that most of the audience (including me) did not commit to their cripping out, with the exception of those who already belonged to the group. Despite Mat’s recommendations to leave out political correctness at the door, I simply could not. Later on in the show, Carr returned to the stage for a strip. When Sealboy introduced her, he announced that Liz had finally gotten a day job. She was dressed as a secretary, and started to shed her clothes to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” Halfway through, though, Liz got bored, and the music abruptly switched to the Superman theme. She stood up out of her chair, for the first and only time that night, and revealed a Supergirl outfit underneath her business attire. It was, quite frankly, inspiring.
Without a doubt, the moment that hit me the hardest was after Tigger’s strip. As I mentioned before, his character was Tiny Tigg, whose leg brace led to a very comical strip. He began with a speech introducing his own act as a strip that would be so pathetic that the audience would be forced to give him money so he would stop. Tigger ended up completely naked, springing around the stage on all fours. Afterwards, he stood up and, still completely naked, talked about his first reactions to hearing about Criptease. One of his first thoughts was of a man to invite. I feel like a total ass because I can’t remember this guy’s name, but Tigger spoke of him so glowingly. He was a dwarf, and hard of hearing, and gay, and he needed braces to walk. According to Tigger, he also had the dirtiest, filthiest sense of humor of anyone he knew. More importantly, though, he was an advocate for queer rights, for disability rights, for any rights. Give him a cause, Tigger said, and he would fight for it. He could not be here tonight, though, because he had recently been hit by a cab while walking home late at night. The accident was fatal.
I sat at my table in the back, thinking to myself, what a fucking incredible world we live in, where a gay ginger man can stand totally nude onstage and deliver one of the most heartfelt eulogies I’ve ever heard, and move me to tears for a man I’ve never met.
The finale was in incredibly irreverent rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, sung by Mat, while he stripped and Julie Atlas Muz did an interpretive dance. Towards the end of the song, Julie did a headstand in front of Mat and lowered her legs in an inverted spread eagle, and they…joined together. As shocking as it was to have to two of them practically simulating sex onstage, it was also quite symbolic of what the entire show was supposed to mean, or did mean. It was a celebration of complete acceptance, not only of the disabled by the able-bodied, but more importantly, of the disabled of themselves. Each and every performer on that stage asserted that they were a whole person, regardless of their physical abilities. And they were not only accepted but celebrated. That celebration of everyone owning their own selves in entirety seems to be at the heart of neo-burlesque. Criptease was a great example of that.