Hotbox girls: a bit like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.
nudity is the costume
Hotbox boasts a wicked and dazzling crew of bare naked ladies.
One part porno rock 'n' roll style and two parts
brainy burlesque, these ladies provide the stuff to hang your fantasies
And, if you tip well, one might wrap her limbs around
a pole, tilt her head back and mouth the words to Eartha Kitt's
"I Want to be Evil" while tossing her discount panties
at your boots.
Typical strip-club scene, right?
Not so fast. In "Pure Gold Baby," the new play at Portland's
Milk & Honey Community Studio, there's a lot more being revealed
than small-to-medium-sized breasts and shaved bush (with or without
the landing strip).
Local playwright Michelle Keil and director Sherry Okamura have
doubled up to present a smart and accessible exploration of the
stripper/customer relationship. It's also an insider's account of
the industry and an honest elaboration on the offstage stripper
Finally a bold and sassy docudrama where it's not the stripper,
but the business, that's being exploited.
The story follows Melissa (Kayla Van Allen) as she ditches a waitressing
gig to join her leggy, lollipop-sucking friend, Claire/Edie (Joslyn
Erickson), onstage at Sasha's Hotbox, a fictitious strip joint.
It's a bit like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole into a magical,
morally cogent, consciousness-raising underworld. There are diatribes,
freak-outs, instant revelations and lots of pro-sex empowerment
No one leaves unchanged.
stereotypes: the academic whip-wielder.
Along the way, Melissa meets a staff of sex kittens whose prototypes
challenge the stripper-as-damaged-slut stereotype. Among others,
we have the single mom, the bibliophilic oracle and the academic
whip-wielder. All of these women are smart, witty and decisive.
Mostly, though, they're survivalists.
Throughout, we see them protectively hunched over desks, books,
mirrors and friendships as if they're trying to smuggle their very
bright and glowing core selves call it their souls
through a place where they're often marginalized and dismissed as
something small and ineffectual.
As former strippers, Keil and Okamura are obviously no strangers
to the snags and stereotypes of the business. Through the two male
characters of their play, they seem to illustrate those parts of
the industry that infuriate them most.
Lexi (Greg Bigoni) is the club's dopy yet animated owner/manager.
He bangs around the stage, slurping beer and dishing diminutive
pet names while pressing a hand up the skirt of his favorite "employee."
His delivery is cartoonish and laughable in an exaggerated slapstick
kind of way, but he represents the part of the business that still
charges stage fees and squawks at employee benefits. "Tip the
dancers," he encourages, "'cuz I ain't gonna pay 'em."
Laars (Judd Eustice) is the ogling regular at Sasha's, the guy
who swings in after a long day at work to lean back and relax. He
thinks he's got a special rapport with each dancer. He cajoles and
hoots. But there's an undercurrent of resentment in his voice and,
under that, a layer of loneliness. He alternates between self-effacing
and punchy. At one point, he lights up the stage with a monologue,
offering a blow-by-blow on how strippers can best earn his dollar.
To give power back to the ladies, the play punctuates the fact
that stripping is, in part, a well-performed illusion of intimacy.
The basic formula takes a guy like Laars and sits him at the bar,
where a lovely, fawning and I mean fawning
woman kicks off her g-string and asks him his name. Maybe she asks
how his day was, what he does for a living, where he got that tie.
She feigns interest and, in return, gets a tip without having to
reveal any of her subjectivity. It's almost as if, in the context
of a strip club, nudity is the costume, the employee uniform, if
What "Pure Gold Baby" does not address is the variety
of reasons why someone might be drawn to a strip club in the first
place. It's not just the lonely, blue-collar working guy who sets
his dollar on the stage. Any trip to Mary's or Magic Gardens will
turn up a crowd of Portland's hip, affable rocker boys, their heavily
mascaraed girlfriends and, sometimes, whole groups of females with
fashionable specs and huge handbags.
We're reaching a point, I like to think, where stripping is becoming
more accepted. I'm recalling books like Carol Queen's "Real
Live Nude Girl" and Lily Burana's "Strip City." Both
of these writers are educators and intellectuals who have also worked
in the sex industry. Their aim is to stir awareness by bringing
erotic diversity and sexual possibility to the front lines.
I enjoy a good strip club, too. I go for the shameless voyeurism,
the kitchy exhibitionism, the cheap beer. Mostly, though, I like
to look. In addition to the obvious, I look at the men responding
to the women, the women responding to each other and everyone
peeking curiously over their mugs, aware that they're all being
looked at by everybody else.
In a strip club there are more shapes and sizes than you'd see
in an issue of Playboy, and when that's coupled with this pro-sex
empowerment vibe, it reflects a comforting, positive image of sexuality
and turns it into something fun.
vibe: reflecting a comforting, positive image of sexuality
Recently, I was having lunch with a friend in San Francisco. When
I asked why she was so drawn to strip clubs, she mentioned that
it made her feel sexy. "I think strip clubs have helped me
understand sexuality better than I used to," she said. "Sure,
they sell fantasy and illusion, but these fantasies also reflect
how men and women react to one another and how they feel about their
The play draws its name from Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus,"
a poem that also serves as an overture:
"... for the eyeing of my scars/there is a charge/for the
hearing of my heart it really goes ..."
That notion, put into dramatic practice, is surely worth the cost
of admission. And on this note, "Pure Gold Baby" is a
refreshing and timely affirmation.
It's fun to see a bunch of women screw up all those preconceived
notions about sex-work and make it into a sexy, theatrical, hell-raising