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The Hotbox girls: a bit like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.
Guest Writer

When nudity is the costume
'Pure Gold Baby'
by Amy Nuttbrock

asha's Hotbox boasts a wicked and dazzling crew of bare naked ladies.

One part porno rock 'n' roll style and two parts brainy burlesque, these ladies provide the stuff to hang your fantasies on.

And, if you tip well, one might wrap her limbs around a pole, tilt her head back and mouth the words to Eartha Kitt's "I Want to be Evil" while tossing her discount panties at your boots.

Typical strip-club scene, right?

Not so fast. In "Pure Gold Baby," the new play at Portland's Milk & Honey Community Studio, there's a lot more being revealed than small-to-medium-sized breasts and shaved bush (with or without the landing strip).

Local playwright Michelle Keil and director Sherry Okamura have doubled up to present a smart and accessible exploration of the stripper/customer relationship. It's also an insider's account of the industry and an honest elaboration on the offstage stripper experience.

Finally – a bold and sassy docudrama where it's not the stripper, but the business, that's being exploited.

The story follows Melissa (Kayla Van Allen) as she ditches a waitressing gig to join her leggy, lollipop-sucking friend, Claire/Edie (Joslyn Erickson), onstage at Sasha's Hotbox, a fictitious strip joint. It's a bit like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole into a magical, morally cogent, consciousness-raising underworld. There are diatribes, freak-outs, instant revelations and lots of pro-sex empowerment rhetoric.

No one leaves unchanged.

Challenging stereotypes: the academic whip-wielder.

Along the way, Melissa meets a staff of sex kittens whose prototypes challenge the stripper-as-damaged-slut stereotype. Among others, we have the single mom, the bibliophilic oracle and the academic whip-wielder. All of these women are smart, witty and decisive. Mostly, though, they're survivalists.

Throughout, we see them protectively hunched over desks, books, mirrors and friendships as if they're trying to smuggle their very bright and glowing core selves – call it their souls – through a place where they're often marginalized and dismissed as something small and ineffectual.

As former strippers, Keil and Okamura are obviously no strangers to the snags and stereotypes of the business. Through the two male characters of their play, they seem to illustrate those parts of the industry that infuriate them most.

Lexi (Greg Bigoni) is the club's dopy yet animated owner/manager. He bangs around the stage, slurping beer and dishing diminutive pet names while pressing a hand up the skirt of his favorite "employee." His delivery is cartoonish and laughable in an exaggerated slapstick kind of way, but he represents the part of the business that still charges stage fees and squawks at employee benefits. "Tip the dancers," he encourages, "'cuz I ain't gonna pay 'em."

Laars (Judd Eustice) is the ogling regular at Sasha's, the guy who swings in after a long day at work to lean back and relax. He thinks he's got a special rapport with each dancer. He cajoles and hoots. But there's an undercurrent of resentment in his voice and, under that, a layer of loneliness. He alternates between self-effacing and punchy. At one point, he lights up the stage with a monologue, offering a blow-by-blow on how strippers can best earn his dollar.

To give power back to the ladies, the play punctuates the fact that stripping is, in part, a well-performed illusion of intimacy. The basic formula takes a guy like Laars and sits him at the bar, where a lovely, fawning – and I mean fawning – woman kicks off her g-string and asks him his name. Maybe she asks how his day was, what he does for a living, where he got that tie. She feigns interest and, in return, gets a tip without having to reveal any of her subjectivity. It's almost as if, in the context of a strip club, nudity is the costume, the employee uniform, if you will.

What "Pure Gold Baby" does not address is the variety of reasons why someone might be drawn to a strip club in the first place. It's not just the lonely, blue-collar working guy who sets his dollar on the stage. Any trip to Mary's or Magic Gardens will turn up a crowd of Portland's hip, affable rocker boys, their heavily mascaraed girlfriends and, sometimes, whole groups of females with fashionable specs and huge handbags.

We're reaching a point, I like to think, where stripping is becoming more accepted. I'm recalling books like Carol Queen's "Real Live Nude Girl" and Lily Burana's "Strip City." Both of these writers are educators and intellectuals who have also worked in the sex industry. Their aim is to stir awareness by bringing erotic diversity and sexual possibility to the front lines.

I enjoy a good strip club, too. I go for the shameless voyeurism, the kitchy exhibitionism, the cheap beer. Mostly, though, I like to look. In addition to the obvious, I look at the men responding to the women, the women responding to each other – and everyone peeking curiously over their mugs, aware that they're all being looked at by everybody else.

In a strip club there are more shapes and sizes than you'd see in an issue of Playboy, and when that's coupled with this pro-sex empowerment vibe, it reflects a comforting, positive image of sexuality and turns it into something fun.

Empowerment vibe: reflecting a comforting, positive image of sexuality – and fun.

Recently, I was having lunch with a friend in San Francisco. When I asked why she was so drawn to strip clubs, she mentioned that it made her feel sexy. "I think strip clubs have helped me understand sexuality better than I used to," she said. "Sure, they sell fantasy and illusion, but these fantasies also reflect how men and women react to one another and how they feel about their bodies."

The play draws its name from Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus," a poem that also serves as an overture:

"... for the eyeing of my scars/there is a charge/for the hearing of my heart – it really goes ..."

That notion, put into dramatic practice, is surely worth the cost of admission. And on this note, "Pure Gold Baby" is a refreshing and timely affirmation.

It's fun to see a bunch of women screw up all those preconceived notions about sex-work and make it into a sexy, theatrical, hell-raising stage show.

E-mail Amy at amynuttbrock@hotmail, and see more of her work in our archives.

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