“We’re all one tequila shot away from being a stripper,” the brunette bombshell purrs into the microphone. The crowd responds; yips and yelps erupt. She pauses and the applause subsides. Breathily, she instructs, “No, you clap when I take a break. It makes me feel better about myself.” Replacing the stick with the carrot, she says. “You should earn this nudity.” The audience goes wild. VaudeVillain Revue hostess and co-founder Virginia Scare, basking in blue and green stage light, breaks into a wide smile. “Is your heart black? Then welcome to the Black Diamond Ball!”
Virginia’s not on stage now. “Statistically, most performers are middle children, starved for attention.” She stirs her drink. “I grew up in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina. Population 49. They host the national hollerin’ contest. I was so weird.” One wouldn’t expect this articulate, attractive single mother to fulfill the role of late-night sex-kitten variety show diva. And yet she does. With gusto. The self-described theater nerd selected ‘Virginia Scare’ as her pseudonym – a goof on Virginia Dare of Lost Colony fame. “I chose the stage name because it’s southern and creepy and I like history. Performing is a sort of pathology. I self-medicate by making a fool of myself. It’s a sort of reverse stage fright.”
As the band launches into the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it, Black,’ Virginia warns the assembly at Durham’s Motorco Music Hall, “This will be 90 percent more naked than your normal lives” and introduces the first performer, Papyrus. On stage, Papyrus twists and turns, producing a hula hoop. Centripetal force whips the hoop around the axis of her hips as, layer by layer, her costume falls to the floor.
“It is sex, but it isn’t.” Virginia is attempting to express what makes burlesque more than raw exhibitionism. In one-on-one conversation, her voice doesn’t carry the clipped Rooseveltian tones it does on the stage. She thinks for a moment. “So many women tell me they find what we do inspiring. The difference, I guess, is that the performer controls the context. Is it sexy or is it funny? The woman on stage is expressing an opinion through parody or through caricature.”
Virginia has been described as the Harriet Tubman of the burlesque show. She outlines rough scripts for each performance, then invites participants. The VaudeVillain Revue’s troupe consists of eight to fifteen members at any given time – dancers, musicians, comics, singers and the occasional freak show act (think: women who swallow coat hangers and masochist clowns stapling their scrotums). The Revue has slowly evolved from a loose variety show hosted by the Black Flower bar on Peace Street. Over the years Virginia and her creative partner, Kitschy DeCoeur, have taken the act to a number of venues throughout the Triangle. There’s always a theme – ‘Nerdvember,’ ‘Hot for Teacher,’ ‘Enchantment Under the Sea.’
At Motorco, the theme tonight is ‘The Black Diamond Ball.’ Most are wearing black and there are more than a few skimpy cocktail dresses in the audience. Musical guest Curtis Eller wails on his banjo, howling and high-kicking. Above the crowd, one of the troupe dangles from a ring suspended from the ceiling. She spins on the hoop to the rhythm of the music, slinging her arms and legs with acrobatic precision, dancing wildly in air.
Virginia explains her hopes for the VaudeVillain Revue. “It’s still evolving. I want to weave in more original music. We put in a lot of effort and I want the show to be worth what we charge.” Indeed, the performance is worth a fair greater sum than the $5 cover. The VaudeVillain Revue, itself, is the product of an evolution of the cabaret culture. Virginia describes it as ‘neo-burlesque’ to contrast it with the elegance and beauty archetype of classic burlesque. Her show – and others like it – relies on a certain degree of parody and pop culture edginess. “If classic burlesque is [happy little trees painter] Bob Ross,” she says, “then neo-burlesque is Jackson Pollack.”
Following a brief intermission, the act grinds on with a rowdy mix of dance, music, storytelling and striptease. A parade of shapely female forms crosses the Motorco stage. A sexy grim reaper sways to the music. Eller, as the band reaches the crescendo of its last set, drops his pants and completes the show in boxer shorts, slacks puddled at his ankles. Virginia Scare narrates the controlled madness and occasionally sings. It’s communal craziness when the entire VaudeVillain troupe ascends the stage and takes a bow.
“I want the audience to feel something at the end of the show,” Virginia explains. “Maybe it’s empowered or inspired or uncomfortable. I just want it to be something they talk about later.”
After the whirlwind of dancing pinup girls, spinning tassels, acrobats and unbridled panache, there’s little chance those who bore witness at Motorco won’t talk about the VaudeVillain Revue later.