In the modern world, where theatre is high art, it’s easy to forget that people throughout history have looked down on the performing arts. Everyone from Plato to the Puritans to the ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi took their turn decrying the immorality of actors: these almost-prostitutes who get up on stage to lie about who they are in a crass attempt to manipulate the emotions of their unsuspecting spectators. Even Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, now seen as a pinnacle of Western culture and art, was shut down by a moral panic about the sex and violence of the plays, and the unwashed rabble who attended them.
But as the world outside the theatre condemned it, inside it became a safe haven, where the world’s dreamers, deviants, and freaks could come together to make art. Even today, oddballs and queer kids in small-minded small towns the world over dream of ‘running away to join the circus,’ finding refuge in the mad world of performance. It’s no coincidence that theatre people were years ahead of the rest of the world in accepting homosexuality and genderqueer identities.
All this is especially true in the year “1931-derful,” and the world of Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum’s Rush, the new play written by and starring Cathy Petch, directed by Em Glasspool (who plays a supporting role as the drunken Dickie the Pianist), which played at the Theatre on King March 24 to 26, 2016.
This one-act, mostly one-woman play chronicles the final night of the Vagabond Theatre, a derelict vaudeville playhouse suffering the effects of the Great Depression and about to be sold off to make way for the new entertainment: the cinema. Petch, as emcee Mel Malarkey, is desperately trying to hold together their company, their show, and themsleves, putting on a brave face before it all comes crashing down. The show must go on…
On the Vagabond stage, Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum’s Rush plays out like a classic vaudeville variety show. There is some truly gross and hilarious bawdy humour—the exact kind that pissed off the Puritans and continues to piss off their descendants—as well as boozy song (accompanied by Glasspool’s semi-conscious pianist), drag, and spoken word. A particular highlight is the song about reclaiming the word ‘tramp,’ full of Petch’s signature flowy, sultry spoken-word style and sharp identity politics: “Because you calling me that is just another way of saying ‘business-owning dame who refuses to be tamed.’”
Indeed, the whole play is a great showcase for Charlie Petch’s unique art. Petch themselves has found a home in performance: in poetry and spoken word, with funny, sexy, and queer-positive poems about identity and wookie love; and in music, as the musical saw player for iconic Peterborough band the Silver Hearts (read more about them). And all of that—saw included—is on full display in Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum’s Rush.
But as Malarkey introduces to the stage an increasingly ridiculous procession of acts (the Hurdy Gurdy Dirty Birdies, Gerta the Flirta, Clyde Fry the Two-Stepping Donkey), the audience instead follows Malarkey away from the spotlighted stage to her low-lighted dressing room, where she descends into melancholy remembrances of times past.
There, we slowly uncover Malarkey’s backstory, which serves as a bittersweet tribute to an age when the options for performance seemed endless. Her life is a chronicle of lost theatre forms: the medicine show, the circus freak show (with a loving, sensual ode to the grotesque curves Ella Sue the Elephant Lady, a woman with elephantiasis), burlesque, and finally vaudeville.
Malarkey, like so many women, found opportunity while the men went off to war, and, like so many women, found herself cast aside when they came home. And in the form of her male alter-ego Victor, Malarkey experienced the closed-off nature of Hollywood, where her/his queerness was too bizarre for this new corporatized kind of performance.
And here lies the true tragedy at the heart of this bizarre and hilarious play. Because, outside of the Vagabond Theatre, where else will Victor find a home? Where else will Mel Malarkey find an audience for her off-kilter performance? Where else will Ella Sue the Elephant Lady find love?
The end of vaudeville in the 1920s and 1930s was a loss for the performing arts, but for the vaudevillians themselves, it was so much more. It was the loss of free expression, of a safe and nurturing space in an increasingly destitute and hostile world.
“It’s hard,” says Mel Malarkey in a fourth-wall-nudging bit of self-reflection, “when your whole world is a stage.”
Update: Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum’s Rush returns to the Theatre on King March 29 to April 2 (more info).
Photos by Andy Carroll.