Mainline Theatre takes it off in Johnny Canuck and the Last Burlesque
Tassels and Fringe
It’s 1947, and Canadian dime store hero Johnny Canuck has just been yanked from the comic stands. What will our man do now?
Never fear! Mainline Theatre to the rescue.
When artistic director Jeremy Hechtman and ex-Fringe Fest general manager Patrick Goddard sat down to create the latter’s next solo performance, it wasn’t long before it snowballed into Johnny Canuck and the Last Burlesque, defined by the duo as a "historico-comedico-musical burlesque extravaganzah," complete with Hitler, the Marx Brothers and plenty of dancing girls.
"One of the first things we did," says Goddard, "was we created a wish list. What would we love to see if we’re going to do a piece about Montreal and the burlesque theatre of the ’40s and ’50s?"
Why, girls stripping in a giant keyhole silhouette, cliffhanger endings and a giant spider web, of course. "We got a grant to write the show not knowing if we were going to get a grant to do the show," explains Hechtman. "When we first started doing it, I remember approaching it a little more timidly, as, you know, ‘Well, we could never really pull that off.’ And then we just said, ‘Well, why don’t we write the show we want to do, the show we want to see on stage?’"
The burlesque tradition of the 1940s lends not only its accoutrements but its raison d’être to the script. "There was a huge element of artistry and storytelling in the striptease numbers of the time, and it’s not in the strip clubs now," says Hechtman.
Goddard concurs. "In the old burlesque shows, it was way more than just striptease. Stripping was a very small element of it. Because you had comedians and jugglers and acrobats and knife throwing and magicians, almost Ed Sullivan-esque acts. So we wanted to put all that on stage."
"We’re trying to revive a different way of telling a story," muses Hechtman. "A lot of the inspiration came out of the story of Lily St-Cyr, who was a famous Montreal burlesque stripper of the time, who put one of her own suicide attempts onto the stage as a strip number. You know, the idea that she was using stripping to tell her own personal story. Or there’s a very specific burlesque number called the Apache Dance, which is essentially a mock rape scene that happened always to a tango, usually set in the dressing room of a performer, because these were the things that were happening to the artists at the time, and they were using their art form to tell their story. This is what we’ve picked up on and have used as the inspiration for the play – to have the burlesque artists tell the story of the history of burlesque. And we’ve been throwing around this catch phrase of ‘We’re not doing a history of burlesque, we’re doing a burlesque of history.’"
"I’m a big comics fan," admits Goddard, who recently returned from studying with renowned physical theatre teacher Philippe Gaulier to work on Last Burlesque. "I had this idea that we would take this character Johnny Canuck, and where did he go after his comic book was cancelled in 1947? I thought it would be really funny to end up in Montreal. And then as Jeremy and I started talking about him, and what would he do, who would he talk to, and who were these other characters, the show just kept expanding and expanding and expanding, until now, we’ve got nine actors and a four-piece band, and this huge set, and…"
"We didn’t get our whole wish list," interrupts Hechtman. "We still didn’t get our girl in a big champagne glass. We couldn’t find one."
"A big champagne glass," Goddard elaborates.
"Girls we’ve got plenty of," assures Hechtman.
Towing the Mainline
If there’s another thing Hechtman doesn’t lack, it’s self-assurance. It’s just this kind of flat-out superlative insistence that sees him holding court behind his desk at the spanking-new Mainline Theatre space, with the din of musical numbers and buzzsaws clamouring to put the finishing details on Last Burlesque, the self-touted Best Thing Ever.
"This is going to be the slickest, most professional show that has ever been produced on stage in Montreal, or ever will be," he states flatly.
Regardless of whether the show holds up to its own hyperbole, there are a whole lot of folks from the theatre community pitching in. And Goddard and Hechtman are no strangers to large-scale theatrical chaos. They’re of a breed more prone to upping the ante than sitting on its laurels.
"The simple fact of the matter is that we love theatre more than anybody else," says Goddard. "And people know it. And it shows."
"There’s no question, there’s a lot to do," agrees Hechtman, what with a new theatre, a new show, and the 16th Fringe fast approaching. "We’re here quite a lot, and we’re here long hours, and working very hard and we’re going home very late and very drunk and coming in very hung over and working through the next day… we’re living the dream!"
So what if Johnny Canuck and his bevy of burlesque beauties can’t live up to the high standard of ultimate excellence the director has set for them? No one seems too worried. "Burlesque is not about being good. It’s about selling the bad," quips Hechtman. "We didn’t necessarily cast the best singers and the best dancers that we had." "No, no," Goddard insists. "We cast the good personalities."
"I think the great thing about burlesque is that if all that falls apart, you can go for the dick joke," Hechtman concludes.
You can bet, if ever there were two guys willing to sacrifice it all for a good dick joke, Hechtman and Goddard are your boys. And rest assured that when they do, it will be with equal measures of irreverence and sheer love of the craft. They may tease on the way there, but in the end, they’ll take it all off.
Johnny Canuck and the Last Burlesque
At Mainline Theatre (3997 St-Laurent), Jan. 25 to Feb. 12