For audience members who were veteran spectators within the burlesque community or regulars at the Wiggle Room, the Charlestown Burlesque, which premiered on Feb. 3, began as expected. After a brief but charming overture of ragtime piano, manager Frenchie Jones sauntered onstage—wearing nothing but undergarments and a top hat—to explain the rules of the night. As instructed, the crowd nervously stood up. With our right hand on our hearts and—for the less bashful among us—our left on our neighbour’s rear end, we took the infamous oath: “I vow to hoot, to howl, to heckle, to drink the bar dry, and to laugh as loud as I damn well please because life is just too goddamn short not to.” And so began the evening.
The Wiggle Room is known throughout Montreal as a destination unique not only for hosting exclusively burlesque shows, but also for its elaborately-themed productions. This was the first, but certainly not the last, edition of the Charlestown shows. The host for the night was the elegant Kitty Vanderbilt, who kicked things off with a fetching rendition of Ella Fitzgerald’s “To Keep My Love Alive.” At once playful and sincere, she explained the inspiration behind the theme.
“The Charlestown came about in the 1920s, and signaled the emancipation of women,” Vanderbilt cooed, pausing for an enthusiastic cheer. “Women were finally allowed to dance by themselves, shake it, and do whatever they wanted!”
Though not overtly political, the acts did seem to be a subtle and coy nod at the idea of feminine liberation that fuels modern nostalgia of 1920s flapper culture. Later on, Vanderbilt would sing “Tu T’Laisses Aller” by Charles Azvanour—a song originally supposed to be sung by a man to a woman—in a nod to the burlesque’s tendency to ignore traditional gender roles.
Everything about burlesque is designed to get a rise out of audience members. The staff, the atmosphere, and even the cocktails all contribute to the maudlin, antique-y tenor of the show. Often dancing beyond the confines of the shallow stage, performers would waltz right into the crowd to interact with spectators, even plucking them from their seats and dragging them up on stage.
The dancers tailored their performance to whatever nostalgic persona they were inhabiting—a sly flapper with peacock feathers for a prop (Aria Deloche), a corpse bride with a puppet as her betrothed (BonBon Bombay), or a retro housewife armed with doughnuts (Audrey Ivory). Yet each performer had a character that went far beyond just the costumes, and every act was a racy mix of dance and theatre—more than just a simple striptease.
Scheduled to appear the first Friday of every month, the Charlestown Burlesque is perfect for anyone with a fondness for the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ bawdy theatre, sequined costumes, or simply uninhibited fun. An evening at the Wiggle Room is guaranteed to be no ordinary Friday night, and the Charlestown may not be for the faint of heart. It will, however, live up to its promise of giving the viewer a truly immersive experience unlike anything else you can find on St Laurent, or perhaps all of Montreal.