This all-nude burlesque is the weirdest thing ever to hit the Toronto stage—and the must-see event of the season

This all-nude burlesque is the weirdest thing ever to hit the Toronto stage—and the must-see event of the season

This all-nude burlesque is the weirdest thing ever to hit the Toronto stage—and the must-see event of the season

Minutes into Untitled Feminist Show, the new play at Harbourfront Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre, a woman takes centre stage and begins stirring an invisible cauldron. She wafts a phantom spoon toward her nose: something’s missing. She pulls a hair from her head and throws it into the pot. She digs something out of her ear and drops that in, too. Finally, she teases one finger toward her exposed vagina—because yes, she’s completely naked, her breasts in braless, jiggling chaos. She flicks one more time into the cauldron; now she’s finally satisfied.

Untitled Feminist Show—a wordless hybrid of pantomime, dance and ­burlesque—comes from the mind of Young  Jean Lee, a 39-year-old Korean American experimental playwright and superstar provocateur on the New York theatre scene. Just a few years ago, Lee was staging her avant-garde productions in non-profit Manhattan performance spaces. Now, she sells out shows at Lincoln Center and writes movie scripts for Brad  Pitt. The late Lou Reed was one of her biggest fans: in 2011, he gushed that Lee was “one of the most accomplished, articulate, versatile and hilarious artists that we in America have to offer.”

Most local theatre capitalizes on misty nostalgia—Miller at Soulpepper, ­Shakespeare at Stratford, Shaw at Shaw—but Lee’s plays are uncannily of the moment, referencing high and low ­culture in the same cunning breath. She has a simple goal for each piece: to pervert expectations, shock audiences and shake up their values. Like her naked sorceress, Lee likes to stir the pot.

Toronto audiences first encountered Lee’s skewed, skewering world two years ago, when Harbourfront staged her play The Shipment, a vaudevillian takedown of African American race and class politics. The five black performers, decked out in rippling silk gowns and diamond-cut tuxes, played out stereotypical scenes of the black American underclass—drug deals, Grand Theft Auto–style gunfights—with the witty flamboyance of a Noël Coward comedy. Packed with upturned clichés and freakishly funny dialogue, The Shipment offered a harrowing glimpse of what it’s like to be black in a white world, without reducing its subjects to victims or symbols. It outed race as an absurd construct—the regalia we use to read and dismiss each other and, worse still, divide and tyrannize.

Untitled Feminist Show uses some of the same tricks to dislodge its audience’s views of femininity. Everything happens on a bare white stage; kaleidoscopic projections of rabbits, trees and tentacles pulse on a white screen above the action. The cast includes several underground New York theatre stars: the butch actor Becca ­Blackwell, the sultry cabaret-burlesque diva Lady Rizo and the queer downtown performance artist Katy Pyle. Here, they’re all stripped to the flesh, gleaming faintly as they leap, quiver and wheel across the stage.

Without language or clothes, the nameless, naked women are ­transparent and anonymous, even as their hairstyles, gait and posture allude to their personalities and sexualities. Lee creates a void between reality and fantasy, a space where she and her collaborators eviscerate the markers of identity, allowing us to steep in a world both elemental and magical. Even the most left-leaning, Buddies in Bad Times–subscribing, Pride-­grooving liberals will come away with their preconceptions shattered and prejudices revealed. When we’re forced to stare deep into a burlesque queen’s vulva, we discover a new kind of nether region.

The show is divided into a dozen or so scenes, each ­demonstrating the ways that femininity—and gender itself—is an endless performance. Every vignette has a target: one playful scene looks at friendship and mean-girl exclusion; another features a cheerful domestic pantomime of grocery shopping, cleaning and diaper changing. Later in the show, two women perform a tender, athletic pas de deux set to an instrumental version of “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” As they claw, grapple, embrace and retreat, the song’s unspoken lyrics echo in your head—“He hit me and I was glad”—and expose the destructive decisions we make for love. Another scene is a bawdy dumb show, where Lady Rizo mimes sex acts with invisible partners: she inserts her hand into a phantom anus only to watch it emerge, puppet-like, through the mouth of her imagined lover-victim. The whole time, she wears a guileless, pop-eyed grin.

The gambolling, preening nude bodies create a physical language that’s equal parts clownish and graceful. Sometimes the bodies evoke the curvy figures of a Matisse painting; at other moments, a romp in the Garden of Eden. Often, you feel like you’re watching a mesmerizing screen saver, a mix of saturated images and glowing flesh, as the performers pull each other’s hair or thrust pelvises in an erotic frenzy. It feels paradoxically natural and shocking to see this unfettered world, and exciting to be able to do so while comfortably clothed in a dark theatre.

The crude nudity is a lightning rod. The actors’ soft bellies, bare nipples and pubic hair will provoke and appall respectable theatregoers. But by the end of the show, the nudity is no longer a catalyst. It’s a neutralizer, a way to clear the palette of femininity, to lay each idea out and see it for what it very often is—an accessory. Clothing, Lee suggests, both defines and restricts us. By divesting the performers of their uniforms, she removes some of the things that allow us to discern age, politics, sexuality and, in the case of the remarkably versatile Becca Blackwell, even gender. When it’s over, we clap our hands and return to reality—a world of clothes, words and rules that, for an hour, we are able to escape.

By Young Jean Lee
Fleck Dance Theatre
Feb. 12-15

UPDATE: The original posting of this story reported that Untitled Feminist Show would run from Feb. 15-17. It actually runs Feb. 12-15. Toronto Life regrets the error.