Erin Markey in 'Puppy Love: A Stripper's Tail'

Erin Markey, 'Puppy Love: A Stripper's Tail'

“Brave” is a word that’s tossed around a little too lightly, and much too often, in the performing arts world. But how else do you describe an hour-long autobiographical solo musical about an actress’ past life as a stripper, in which said performer remains topless for nearly the entire show?

Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail, which opened as part of the seventh annual soloNOVA Arts Festival at PS 122 last night, introduces audiences to writer-performer Erin Markey as she reveals the details of her professional performance debut — as a stripper. Shortly after graduating from the University of Michigan, and increasingly desperate for a job in the “real world” (after not getting a call back from Chuck E. Cheese), Markey finds work as “Bridget” at Deja Vu Showgirls and Love Boutique in Ypsilanti, MI. But Markey’s story is not a judgment of strippers and strip clubs, nor does it glamorize the job.

“I’ve had a lot of diverse performance and theater training,” Markey says, “and stripping felt like another style of performance. All of the movement and speech is really codified and stylized there. It was like learning a new body language. It’s similar to getting  trained in any hyper-specific type of performance, like Jacque Lecoq or Meisner. It’s just a lot more ‘loaded’ of a style, because of the way people feel about women, sex, and commerce. But I was entering into the club with a gender studies degree, so I really didn’t have that same kind of baggage around that stuff anymore. I was able to enjoy it as a style of performance, and then use it when I need to in my other work.”

It’s hard to believe that Markey is actually able to use her previous exotic dancing (and strip club VIP room) experience very often in her current work as a performance artist and comedienne. Sure, she’s got a sense of humor about it, as her hilarious and campy multi-character musical illustrates. (The actress also, at times, embodies an old woman, a baby, and a male customer as she navigates this strange new world of love, lust, and money.) But throughout Puppy Love, she demonstrates her prowess at perhaps the most physically demanding skill required of the job: pole dancing, on a stripper pole installed in the center of the space.

Yet the strip club setting is only the catalyst for the show’s true emotional center: a love story between new stripper Bridget and her more experienced mentor, Sky. Markey, as Bridget, falls in love with Sky almost immediately — in part due to the latter’s uncanny lap dancing skills and money-making ability, and partly because of a deeply felt emotional connection.

“In my opinion, it’s a deliciously confusing show about love and identity,” Markey says. “It’s about that thin line between wanting to be someone and wanting to have sex with someone. It’s presented in a very bawdy, absurdist, and sometimes slapstick way. I want the audience to feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and delight in the orderly disorder that’s presented. I, like most people, just want to be loved.”

Erin Markey

Erin Markey

Markey says that she is always thinking about how she will eventually write about the events in her life, even as she is living them. “For good or ill, I’m already seeing the play while I’m experiencing what I’m experiencing,” she explains. She began writing Puppy Love without music in 2005 and presented it at the Single File solo performance festival in Chicago, then started rewriting it as a musical in 2007 with collaborator Rich Campbell. She has performed the show in NYC and on tour, and once again revisited the piece to add back-up singers and a three-piece band for her soloNOVA run this year. Markey admits that she may not have gone back to work on Puppy Love again, if not for the interest of soloNOVA producers.

“I was blown away by this woman’s voice and tough spirit,” soloNOVA artistic director Jennifer Conley Darling says of Markey. “She is also a fellow Michigander, which always warms my heart… and who doesn’t want a stripper pole to be part of their programming?”

“I’ve learned how to actually talk to an audience,” Markey says of her experience performing Puppy Love. “I’ve learned to directly connect a lot more with the people who are present in the room. The joy of a solo piece is that you’re actually very much not alone in the room. Unless, of course, nobody comes. Then you are the most alone you could possibly be.”

* * * * *

Brian McManamon in 'It or Her'

Brian McManamon, 'It or Her'

In It or Her, a one-man show written by Alena Smith and directed by Jessi D. Hill, Brian McManamon stars as Andrew, a lonely man obsessed with the collection of figurines he keeps in his basement. He has devoted himself unconditionally to his prized porcelain possessions, but things start to unravel after the loss of the “Red One” and subsequent disappearance of his wife. As he strives to form the “ultimate arrangement” of his inanimate figurines, the line blurs between Andrew’s reality and creativity, and his dark secret may finally be revealed.

“To me, the play is, among other things, a partially veiled look at what it is to be an artist in the world, McManamon says. “Andrew is a man seeking to create, and complete, what he believes to be his life’s work. He hopes his creation will leave an important contribution to the world — not an unfamiliar feeling for any artist, or for that matter, this actor. He is striving for recognition and appreciation for his work from the world around him and those he loves. It or Her can be seen as a look inside the creative process, and what happens when one’s artistic contribution goes unappreciated and the creator loses himself in the process. We are incredibly vulnerable in the light of our art.”

“In scouting the Frigid Festival earlier this year,” Darling says, “we chose this piece as the best of it. The quirky character of Andrew that Alena Smith has created is one of true loneliness and lack of connection with the outside world. Andrew’s entire life is given to his figurine collection. Yes, it is a dark comedy!”

It or Her was selected by soloNOVA as the Best Solo Performance of the 2010 Frigid Festival in NYC, and was also named the 2010 Frigid Audience Choice Winner. But the show still felt like a work in progress in its opening performance at the soloNOVA Arts Festival last night.

Brian McManamon in 'It or Her'

Brian McManamon, 'It or Her'

As a whole, It or Her could be viewed as a monologue disguised as a one-man show. Moments of brilliance in Andrew’s interaction with his figurines eventually leads to dialogue that reads like flat exposition, with the creepy collection simply there as an excuse for the character to talk to himself and keep the plot moving forward. Andrew’s repeated references to his ex-wife and his desire to father a child seem somehow unconvincing from McManamon. He imagines — and then becomes — his twin brother, a fashion designer with a European accent named Albert, which provides some cringe-worthy comedy but doesn’t make a lot of sense. One twist in the plot is predictable, while another just comes out of nowhere and only further muddles Andrew’s motivation.

McManamon is at his best, though, when portraying Andrew at his most unhinged and vulnerable. Talking to a figurine as if arguing with his wife, antagonizing the figurines in his collection when they are uncooperative, recalling his regular trips to the flea market, and obsessing over his ultimate arrangement provide the right combination of heartfelt sentiment and hearty laughs to keep the show uncomfortably entertaining.

“Although the dressing room can be a little lonely,” McManamon says, “as an actor working on a solo show you have ownership over the work in a way that is very different from a production with a cast of more than just you. That responsibility — and, let’s face it, pressure — has forced me to stand behind my work in a way that is very exciting.”

The actor met Smith and Hill while the three were students at the Yale School of Drama. McManamon says that he was a fan of their work, but hadn’t had the chance to work with them before and leaped at the opportunity when they approached him to collaborate on It or Her.

“The process was not at all a ‘solo’ experience,” McManamon says. “This has been a serious collaboration with Jessi, Alena, and the designers, and one of the most rewarding I’ve had. Because we have known each other for years, we were able to really trust each other and put together a show we are all really proud of.

“It takes a lot of balls to be the only one on stage,” McManamon adds,” and this festival celebrates that courage and skill. It has been at times terrifying, as well as being loads of fun and completely liberating. So as not to psych myself out, it has been helpful for me to think of it less as a one-man show and more as a play where I have 40 female figurines as co-stars.”

soloNOVA

soloNOVA, produced by terraNOVA Collective, “celebrates innovative individuals who push the boundaries of what it means to be an artist, aims to redefine the solo form, and uniquely invigorates the audience through the time-honored tradition of storytelling.”

‘It or Her’ performs May 17, 19 & 22 at 7 p.m. and May 16 at 2 p.m., and ‘Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail’ performs May 17, 19 & 22 at 9 p.m. and May 16 at 4 p.m. at Performance Space 122, 150 First Ave. (at 9th St.), as part of the seventh annual soloNOVA Arts Festival, which runs through May 22. For more info about soloNOVA and to purchase tickets, visit the soloNOVA website.

Read about the previous soloNOVA opening night performances of Binding, Remission and Monster , Rootless: La No-Nostalgia, and The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. Back Stage is a sponsor of the soloNOVA Arts Festival.

This story was posted online May 14, 2010 at Blog Stage.

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