Comely maidens tease, Mary Walsh rages at Canoe Theatre Festival

GigCity Edmonton Tudor QueensBurlesque has undergone an interesting renaissance.

Once a form of theatrical entertainment that invited randy gentle-men to peep at comely lasses cavorting unbesleeved and naked ankles akimbo, the girly show eventually “evolved” into full nudity, away from the eyes of the up-standing citizenry and disconcerted clergy, and into the seedy domain of the strip club.

For years then, the art of the burlesque dance was in a dark ages, until quite recently, maybe as an offshoot of the modern mania for musical theatre, when it has come back with a vengeance. There are now troupes of scantily clad dancing women performing across the continent, on stage and screen, with at least three groups in Edmonton alone.

GigCity Edmonton Henry VIII memeThe girls are in charge now. Delia Barnett, who stars in the burlesque play Tudor Queens opening Thursday at C103 as part of the Canoe Theatre Festival, talks about the revival and the largely female audience that sustains it.

“A lot of people are finding that the primary audience for burlesque are women,” she says. “I’ve had women come up to me after shows and talk to me about how strong and powerful as a female I appear while doing these numbers. They’re inspired to see someone so comfortable with their bodies. In burlesque you can’t hide anything. You have to love yourself and your body in order to do it. So if you have any flaws, well, you better shake ‘em and put ‘em on display!”

Tudor Queens, written by fellow Send In the Girls Burlesque troupe member Ellen Chorley, deals with the six wives of Henry VIII, two of whom lost their heads, another two divorced, events which more or less started Protestantism. For the last 4,000 years in some temporal afterlife loop and for some unexplained reason, the ladies have been forced to perform a nightly burlesque show in purgatory. Some of the queens actually met in real life, and didn’t get along very well, by some reports. And yet they’re up there every night stripping down to panties and pasties for an unseen audience, night after night, for apparently all eternity. Merciful God. This particular night is different, however. Henry himself might actually be in the audience this time.

Says Barnett, “Tonight is the night that the show goes off the rails and the queens find out a lot about each other and a lot about what’s going on, and give all this great power to themselves.”

No more details, please. Just watch out, Henry.

The use of burlesque to tell a real story might not be so recent an innovation. Barnett notes that the word comes from the Italian word “burlesco” which means mockery or joke.

Mary Walsh Dancing With Rage

Mary Walsh Dancing With Rage

“It’s a larger than life exaggeration of things,” Barnett says. “It is specifically strip tease, which more emphasis on the tease than the strip. I like to approach it like a clown routine. For me it’s more important to tell a story and really play a character and really connect with the audience.”

Tudor Queens – a big hit at the 2011 Fringe festival – is one of a number of plays at the Canoe Theatre Festival, which will also have shows at the Myer Horowitz Theatre and the New City Legion. One of the feature attractions is Canadian comic legend Mary Walsh in her one-woman play “Dancing With Rage” at the Horowitz on Feb. 2.

For full schedule and ticket information, click here.