A burlesque show modeled on the Bible when it was all smite and terror and sex? Sounds like it can’t get much better than that. For me, the pleasure in watching burlesque is as much about enjoyment of dance and sexuality as it is watching the performers have an amazing time. There was no denying the excitement on the face of the woman who plays Eve, Saint Stella, while removing ivy-twined clothing to reveal a painted snake circling her body as she takes a bite of the fateful apple.
Erotic Tales from the Old Testament, a project from the collective dead birds, started in 2012. With a limited run at the Toronto Fringe Festival, every night fills the house and turns away many a downcast hopeful-viewer. With a 60-minute run-time, the collective aims for a cohesive theme and unity for the evening, a step away from many other burlesque shows that provide a more miscellaneous midway-style compilation of acts and genres. The master of ceremonies is a woman acting as Lilith, Emily Schooley, or God’s creation of trash and evil in an opposite mirror of Eve. Her sensual introductions to the various powerful women of the Bible, most often those that followed a path of lust rather than righteousness, are exciting and give the show the skeleton it needs.
The audience feels a connection to each act, angling heads and snuggling up against loved ones on the large blankets spread upon the grass. Both ironic and fitting, the show plays in the courtyard of a church, St George the Martyr Anglican Church. Not only does the courtyard fulfill the show’s Edenic needs with its lush grass, flowers, and climbing vines, the looming clocktower seems to add the needed edge of darker themes. However, while multimedia and projections especially are becoming more and more a part of the contemporary dance and performance scene, the small projection on the tower behind the stage did not add anything to the show. A little small, blurry and distracting, the device could have had so much more effect if the whole tower was illuminated, or perhaps even still frames were cycled through.
Despite any technological pitfalls, every one of the performers showcases their talents with grace, beauty, confidence, professionalism, and sexuality. Singers, musicians, dancers, and an illusionist come together to tell their tales of murder, sex, and mystery, and have the audience eating out of their palms. The reverence that settles on the audience is a wonderful sign of success. While there is the hooting and hollering that is part and parcel of a burlesque show, the audience accepted every character, and each web of illusion is woven so well, that eyes widen, mouths gape, and silence ensues. The woman portraying Yael, Genie Emerald, has the audience gasping for more with her powerful warrior-style dancing and beautiful costuming. Never have I seen an act in a burlesque show with more power, sexuality, and that truly catches me by surprise.
There is no denying that Erotic Tales from the Old Testament is at the top of many patrons’ must-see list for this Fringe festival, but sadly the venue cannot provide enough viewing space. However, isn’t that longing, a little peek-a-boo, the foundation of burlesque?