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Sex sells, and perhaps that's why there are many works in the 2021 Philadelphia Fringe Festival focused on getting it on. But sex does more than sell. It connects us, excites us, and challenges us. Artists are well-positioned to remind us of the thrill of sex, whether it be a fleeting encounter or a collective meditation on pleasure, and there is a handful of Fringe shows this year that pursue and explore that thrill.
Mae West is a radical permissionist: they seek pleasure in the unexpected and give themself permission to release their feelings of shame. West is an artist and sex worker, a fact they state plainly. These identities allow West to authoritatively guide the audience of their Cannonball Festival show, $7 Girl, as they consider what brings us pleasure and what is sexy.
West has a knack for making well-trod conversations around consent and sexual liberation feel nuanced and exciting. They approach topics that could be overly academic, like the role that capitalism and the carceral system play in our desire, in ways that are charming, understandable, and downright cheeky.
West is also an incredibly talented performer. They catapult across the stage, using only an aerial pole, rigged at an unusual height of nine feet; this lower height means that the pole is always at an angle. They rig the bare MAAS Building studio into a strip club where clueless DJs and misogynistic managers seem to thwart every effort to make a buck. So when they do perform a traditional strip routine, the audience recognizes the talent and effort that goes into performing a hypersexualized body.
In contrast to the utilitarian set-up of $7 Girl, the second-floor theater of the Latvian Society has transformed into a colorful, retro motel for Motel Montana by Gunnar Montana (who serves as director, set designer, dancer, and creative director), complete with plush sofas and kitschy seats.
In the show’s program notes, Montana writes, “We all need a pop of color with a handful of glitter and the highest of heels. We need to laugh and let go, have a drink, and take in something beautiful. That to me is the essence of queerness.” Montana’s queerness connects him to his grandfather, Richard, who was a closeted gay man who owned motels.
For Montana, the motel becomes a space of liberated sexuality. One can sneak into a new room to meet a furtive lover, try on a new wig, and slip into something more comfortable, like a new outfit or identity. The music choices trend toward pop, and the choreography is highly athletic and overtly sexual.
The numbers are most successful when they are celebratory and campy, as when three nuns (Jessica Lynn Daley, Kelly Fatscher, and Desirée Navall) disrobe into skimpy lingerie, liberating themselves from societal expectations. However, when the choreography attempts intimacy between two or more people, the results are awkward. The athleticism in the choreography prevents any erotic chemistry from establishing. In contrast, burlesque entertainer Mika Romantic stops the show cold with a slow turn of her head. Decked out in an out-of-this-world hat, Romantic reminds us that stillness can be very, very sexy.
Motel Montana is technically polished and masterful from start to finish. It's precise, opulent, and sumptuous, like an hourlong music video from the Ryan Murphy cinematic universe. But like Murphy’s work, its exploration of queerness is only skin deep.
Dr Livingston Presents RUB HARDER
Five blocks east of the Latvian Society in a parking lot-turned-performance bar, Brian Sanders’s JUNK presentation of Dr Livingston Presents RUB HARDER offers a similar brand of queer burlesque. RUB HARDER is a ritual of “grief, cleansing, honor, and blumpkins.” On prerecorded audio tracks, director Jasmine Zieroff explains that fictional mad scientist Dr Livingston is her long-lost godfather. To connect with this mysterious figure, we witness a series of rites that act as loose conceptual underpinnings for the various acts on display.
The show begins with two dancers (William Brazdzionis and Taheem Mack) being whipped with a wet T-shirt—the flagellation represents grief. Then, we witness a cleansing ritual with Mack writhing in a bath far above the stage. After, Zieroff honors her heroes Martha Graham, George Michael, and Bob Fosse in a series of erotic acrodance routines. Finally, the show ends with a series of acts (two involving audience participation) that include a twerking contest, a wet T-shirt dance solo, and an onstage representation of a blumpkin (giving fellatio while your partner has a bowel movement).
RUB HARDER is often sloppy. There are times when the way the stage is set up makes it difficult to see the action, no matter where you are sitting or standing. The “tiki-kitsch” parking lot bar is pretty sparse. However, in all this mess, genuine sexuality and chemistry are palpable.
There is a moment, central to the thesis of $7 Girl, when Mae asks the audience “What is sexy?” It turns out, not surprisingly, that there is no consensus. Because there is no one way to have sex or find pleasure, it is impossible to regulate or perform in a way that is universal. But when considering the chiseled bodies and skimpy outfits of Motel Montana and RUB HARDER, I was left thinking that the sexuality they were celebrating is rather specific and one dimensional.
What, When, Where
Dr. Livingston Presents RUB HARDER. Presented by Brian Sanders’ JUNK. Directed by Jasmine Zieroff. $10-$35. Through October 2, 2021, at the Candy Bar, 200 Spring Garden Street. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com. For Ages 21+. Event is entirely outdoors.
Motel Montana. Directed by Gunnar Montana. $40. Through October 30, 2021, at the Latvian Society, 531 North Seventh Street. Appropriate for ages 18+. Tickets and more information at gunnarmontana.com, (215)-413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Proof of Covid vaccination and masks are required.
$7 Girl. Directed by Mae West, presented by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre. $10-$50. Through September 25, 2021 at the MAAS Building Studio, 1325 North Randolph Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
All attendees over the age of 12 must provide proof of vaccination to enter the event. Face masks are required for all attendees in both indoor and outdoor performance spaces.
The MAAS building is not ADA compliant. The upstairs studio must be accessed by a flight of metal stairs with 17 steps and is not wheelchair accessible. However, the ground floor performance spaces (the garden, patio, Fifth Street side space, and cottage) and one bathroom can be accessed with a wheelchair.
Audience members with wheelchairs or other mobility devices can enter via the Randolph street entrance at 1325 North Randolph Street to avoid the cobblestone path at the garden entrance. They will then be guided to the performance space through the first level of the MAAS building.
Contact [email protected] with additional questions about the venue or accessibility.
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