Trisha’s Take: D20 Burlesque’s A Night of Role Playing (Games) review

D20 Burlesque’s A Night of Role Playing (Games)

Produced by Anja Keister
Hosted by Neil O’Fortune
Starring Anja Keister, B.B. Heart, Dangrrr Doll, Hazel Honeysuckle, Lily Stitches, and featuring Luna Chase
Raffle prizes sponsored by The Compleat Strategist
Friday, March 25 at 11:30 pm

[Editor’s note: Apologies in advance for the blurry photography, which may not be safe for work. -TL]

My introduction to burlesque began with my viewing of the 1993 Bette Midler TV musical production of Gypsy which featured Cynthia Gibb as the eponymous Gypsy Rose Lee. It was a musical I’d only ever heard about but had never seen, and Bob Mackie’s fanciful costuming of the three featured burlesque performers in the second half of the show along with Gypsy’s own beautiful tear-away gowns made me want to find out more.

However, the very first live burlesque show I ever witnessed was at the 2008 MangaNEXT convention where I first heard about not just the neo-burlesque movement, but also the idea that there was a geek version of it as well. The troupe called itself Cosplay Burlesque, and I’d later learn that some of the dancers there were also a part of another group called the White Elephant Burlesque Society.

The idea stayed with me for quite some time, and so when D20 producer Anja Kiester asked the members of a New York City-themed LiveJournal group I’m in if there would be interest in an RPG-themed show, I bought my tickets as soon as I got my next paycheck.

The show was to be held at the Parkside Lounge on the Lower East Side, a part of town in which I only find myself when Lyssa Spero calls for a midnight screening of a classic (or geeky) movie at the Landmark Sunshine. Since the curtain time was for 11:30 pm on a Friday night, I expected that the place would be packed, and indeed it was. We found the back room well enough, but since we arrived at 10:30 pm, we ended up crashing a street hockey’s season opening party.

But that was okay, because just before the league commissioner started in on his opening remarks, they brought on comedian Rob Gorden. His act was short and sweet, opening with an “on the fly” bit about being dropped from one team and scrambling to find another, but seamlessly segueing into his more polished bits on what it means to be a New Yorker and how fun (or not fun) it can be to ride the subway. (At this time, I would like to thank Chris Hardwick, Matt Mira, Jonah Ray and their Nerdist podcasts for making it easier for me to sound like I know what I’m talking about when I speak to a comedian after his or her set ends.)

Once their party was over, the room had to be cleared and the tables and chairs re-set, so my companion and I moved out into the small foyer where a line for the burlesque show had already formed. It was really very interesting to note that compared to the previous group of people who were mostly somewhat fit and wore trendy clothes, the group of people waiting for this show had more eye glasses and had significantly less women in it.

I can’t remember whether or not the show started on time, but I can tell you that the warm up act was a go-go/kitten dancer named Luna Chase who was dressed in a black and white bra, black panties, white thigh highs, tall black shoes, a pair of white feathery wings… and elf ears. I have no idea what kind of RPG character she was supposed to be, but I can tell you that on her character sheet, she forgot to buy a level in the Interpreting Music skill. She danced before the show started and also during the intermission for tips that you could pop into her thigh highs, and I gotta tell you that even though I did have one dollar in my wallet, I didn’t leave my chair once to tip.

Neil O’Fortune was the host and emcee for the evening, and he did a fantastic job. He was funny, his prepared speeches about the characters and performers were entertaining, and he was wonderfully engaging with the crowd. There were some times in which he said that he wasn’t familiar with the source material, and for him to admit that he wasn’t as geeky as the girls who had chosen to costume as those characters was pretty bold in a crowd of part-gaming geeks and part-burlesque geeks.

One interesting bit he did in the second half of the show was to read from what he called a “Pick a Plot” book (I’m assuming he didn’t say Choose Your Own Adventure because I hear those folks are awfully litigious) and have the three volunteers he chose from the audience decide what how the party was going to explore the dungeon. As he narrated the party’s eventual doom, he expounded on the great rules of role play gaming, pounding it in twice that as per Gary Gygax, if you choose the safe option, the GM has a right to punish you for that. It’s a bit that could only work for this specific audience and it killed. The last person standing got a copy of the re-released Dungeons and Dragons red box set, and I really wanted to be that person at that time.

As for the dancers, my favorite performances were by B.B. Heart and Anja Keister. The former only danced once, but what a dance! She came out dressed as the classic Max Schreck/Nosferatu from the 1922 German movie and moved to bite an audience member’s neck, but as the strains of “One” from A Chorus Line began, she was moved to dance and strip, first opening her coat to reveal a men’s dress shirt, suspenders, and slacks, and then underneath that, a glittering red bra, and no underwear, to…. Well, when she finally turned around for the final reveal, the design on the pastie she had covering her pelvis had to be seen to be believed.

Anja Keister danced twice, the first time as a gigantic d20 (really, a d18 because as she wrote in her recap of the evening, she had to remove two panels in order to be able to put it on) and the second as a 1920s adventurer caught in a Call of C’thulu campaign. In the latter, as the dance neared its climax, she appeared more and more crazed and unstable until she finally removed her waist cincher and bra to reveal that she was being guided by a mini-version of the Great Noodley One all along. What I loved about both Heart’s and Keister’s performances was that the dancers really emoted well throughout each piece, really understood their characters in each dance, and made every musical flourish count when it came to revealing more of themselves.

Kudos also go to Hazel Honeysuckle, who performed as Sheila the Thief from the old “Dungeons and Dragons” cartoon. Dancing to Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” as part of her act Luna Chase held up an oversized character sheet which detailed her stats, right down and including her reveal of a +5 mithril bikini. However, my favorite part of the dance was when she revealed her tasseled pasties and twirled them, because that’s a definite skill that not all dancers have.

My least favorite act was the last one because there was a lot of floor work between dancer Dangrrr Doll and Luna Chase, and because of my seated angle, I could barely see what was going on. Lord knows what the folks standing in the back of the room thought. Neil O’Fortune’s intro didn’t reveal who the character was, and it was entirely lost on me why this character would disembowel Chase and use her heart and entrails to make mini-cup cakes. There seemed to be too much prop work, not enough dancing and/or stripping, and while the cupcake reveal was cute, again, the motivation just wasn’t there. Later, as I was getting clarification for this article, Keister revealed that the character was supposed to be a barbarian, whereas I initially thought “vampire baker.” Oh well, I guess you can’t win them all.

As Anja Keister wrote in her blog on March 7, this show was the very first that she produced on her own, and I’d say that she struck gold with it. Nerdy burlesque (or “nerdlesque,” as she calls it) is a rare sight in the burlesque world and knowing that not only do they have a board gaming themed show going on next month on April 22, but they were able to book a gig in May as well is a testament to her dedication to seeing the art form thrive.

UPDATED: Thanks to Ping Stanton for a Flickr set of images, taken from a different angle!