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'Burlesque Unzipped' teases at the Fringe

Posted By: Nina Rolle

Editor's Note: During the next few days, Nina Rolle, an artist and Naropa University meditation instructor, will present her unique viewpoint in the form of reviews of shows at the Boulder International Fringe Festival. Read more here.

How do you get a bunch of Canadians out of the swimming pool?

You say, "Excuse me, would everyone please get out of the pool?"

Get it? Canadians are polite.

And “polite” aptly describes Prairie Fire’s Sharon Nowlan, the creator and performer of Burlesque Unzipped, a one-woman variety show at Naropa’s Performing Art Center. Hailing from Regina, Seskacthewan, Nowlan takes on a naughty subject with class, thorough research, and meticulously minded manners. Burlesque Unzipped drew the largest and most diverse audience I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe yet, and Nowlan rose to the challenges of performing solo in a big, white gymnasium with poor sightlines.

Setting the mood with French cabaret waltzes and songs of Edith Piaf, Nowlan enters looking like Rosie the Riveter’s bookish sister in a headscarf, overalls, and big dorky vintage glasses, and begins dressing the set while the houselights are still up and the audience still chatting. The French chancon changes to 1980s dance music, and Nowlan begins to entertain and flirt, striking comic attitudes, waggling her behind at the audience and generally mugging until she is scolded by the tech crew and told to get back to work. “Work” in this case is part variety show, part lecture-demonstration, and part striptease: a historical tour of burlesque, beginning with the definition of the word. Burlesque comes from the Italian word “burla” which means joke, jest or prank. Burlesque means, simply, “to laugh at.”

Apparently both the French and the English lay claim to burlesque’s origins. That’s already something to laugh at. Nowlan instructs us on the revolutionary origins of French cancan and the ribald songs of England’s Marie Lloyd, the “real” Queen of Burlesque. In a well-written scene that could really benefit from a good director, the doyenne of an American theater society praises the genius of Lydia Thompson’s 1868 turn in Ixion Burlesque, citing its women in short pants as a sign of feminine empowerment. By the end of the monologue, however, largely because of her husband’s ardor, she talks herself into putting on an end to burlesque and ignites protests against these “brazen-faced yellow-haired padded creatures.”

Dealing with costume changes is a frequent dilemma of the one-person show. Nowlan opts for changing in the half-light behind a classic screen draped with evening gloves, a choice that clogs the overall flow of the piece. If the costume changes become tiresome after a while, the costumes do not. They are consistently striking and inventive. Declaring that in 1936 New York burlesque lost its battle against mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Nowlan delivers something of a eulogy to burlesque, in fishnets, velvet top hat, and a red satin cropped jacket.

The show flagged during a monologue of Mae West one-liners and when Nowlan veered from character point of view to personal narrative, recalling her own epiphany during the Neo Burlesque movement of the early 1990s.

Burlesque Unzipped’s strongest bits are Nowlan’s dance with her life-sized puppet — the amorous Girard who plies her with gifts, feels her up, and eventually undresses her — and her tribute to Gypsy Rose Lee, a simultaneous striptease and very funny monologue that exposes not only some skin, but what the dancer is actually thinking about while she disrobes: recycling, the debt ceiling, recession. When she bares her shoulder she is wondering what will happen if Michele Bachmann gets her way. When she bends over she is secretly scanning the room to see if there’s a reviewer in the house.

Sharon Nowlan is a beautiful woman and a beautiful mover — more a variety performer than actress — and her cancan, whip dance, striptease, and ball swinging (yes, I said ball swinging. I don’t know what else to call it. They are glowing balls in striped slings, and she swings them. It’s beautiful) are skillful and entertaining, if often a bit too careful and polite. Polite striptease? Oh, Canada!


If you go: Burlesque Unzipped plays on Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 8:30 p.m.; Friday, Aug. 26, at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Aug. 27, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance. All shows at the Naropa Performing Arts Center at 2130 Arapahoe Ave.

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