Angela Ryan’s American Horror Story Birthday Burlesque Party Was Too Real.
We all have different things that we’re good at. Around Independence Day, for example, we find that some people are good at eating hot dogs, while others are good at injuring themselves with homemade fireworks. Most young Americans excel at not voting then complaining about the results. My personal strengths include insomnia, TV binge-watching, waxing verbose about things of which I’m ignorant, and willfully confusing container size with serving size for any given snack.
The decision to shoot Angela Ryan’s birthday celebration at The Church, then, played right to my strengths. The theme for the night would be “American Fetish Story,” a take-off of TV’s American Horror Story, which I’d technically never seen. No problem. I always have a backlog of photo-editing, which I prefer to do at night, and the TV sits at an angle where I hardly have to move my head to get a feel for what’s going on with the stories and who the main characters are. And given my aforementioned strength, I figured I could easily get thru several seasons in a week or two.
One reason I’d never seen AHS is that, well, I find horror stuff sorta boring –and there it is in the name: Horror. Sure, the spectacle of ever more creatively gratuitous gore has a certain technical appeal, but in general the genre has become awfully self-referential without the benefit of being self-aware. Most horror stuff puts more effort into paying tribute to established tropes in a way that’s long on form and short on function. It’s a shame, because the genre itself (like the Sci-Fi with which it’s often lumped) has a privileged position to mine psychological and social veins to make for some really insightful narratives which in other genres might simply seem didactic.
But I was game, and a week or so ago I launched into Season One, to immediate and pleasant surprise. Season Two was another surprise. It’s very interesting to see the same actors in completely different roles. It was a bonus that by half-way through I’d had the chance to see Zephram Cochrane and Reboot Spock strut their stuff. AHS, it turns out, is quite watchable, especially since my emphasis was on the look of the various characters and how they might play into the fetish/burlesque theme of the party I was doing all this cramming for in the first place.
But then the real American horror stories intervened. First, the police killing of Alton Sterling. Then, the police killing of Philando Castile. Then, the twisted massacre of Dallas police officers after an otherwise peaceful demonstration against deadly police force.
Instead of being riveted to Netflix, I was riveted to live TV feeds, social media and police scanner sites. It was truly horrible, and the paralyzing and compounding effects of sadness and rage and love and grief made me pretty uninterested in fictional trauma. By Sunday, however, after some processing and yet more police shootings and more threats to police, AHS‘s ghosts, asylums and covens were starting to make more sense than any of the real-world stuff that was happening.
I was starting to get really curious at how they were going to pull this burlesque event off. On the one hand there were a couple of time-tested, two-dimensional fetish/cosplay archetypes to use — the naughty French-style maid, the homicidal latex-bound submissive (aka the gimp) and the naughty nun. On the other hand, the price of having good writing with (mostly) good dialogue and character development is that you end up with compelling 3-D characters that don’t really lend themselves to facile cosplay memes. The family in the first season and some of the more modern-style evil-doers all look pretty regular, which is kinda what makes their characters compelling in the context of the narrative.
Season Two gave us the aforementioned spank-hungry nuns, and I guess there’s the possibility of someone in a doctor’s coat and a Monsignor’s getup, whatever that is. But again, many of the main characters are sympathetic because they’re not stereotypes; what does a psychiatrist look like? A reporter? A guy who was mistakenly framed for murdering his wife? The murdered and/or murdering wife?
Still, Angela Ryan is a professional, and it was her birthday party, and she’d arranged a nice lineup of local and traveling talent for the show, so I trusted that they would be able to mine the characters from the several seasons I haven’t seen. Regular social media promotions for the event also emphatically encouraged that attendees wear costumes corresponding to AHS characters, promising a contest after the fetish/burlesque performances.
Despite all the encouragement, it didn’t seem like many in the audience came in full AHS costume. There were one or two people who were probably playing Zachary Quinto’s psychologist character from Season Two, and I think I saw at least one white lab coat that would indicate an attempt at James Cromwell’s Dr. Arden. It’s entirely possible that some people were dressed in one of Jessica Lange’s many guises, but suffice it to say that people were relying on the pros to do the heavy costume lifting.
And lift they did. Floridian Vita DeVoid managed three solo performances, each with a character/costume so different it would’ve been hard to recognize her as the same person were it not for her name emblazoned on the screen at the back of the stage. Likewise, Californian Ashleeta Beauchamp managed two solos, including one with her masked partner Louie Luxx. Austin’s Roxy VyxSin was Young Moira O’Hara, replete with her rubber gimp. (I confess I had to look up gimp to remind myself what it meant in this context.)
Courtney Crave was her usual marvel of strength and beauty for her pole solo as Sister Mary Eunice, assisted by a Jerry Fedora as Dr. Arden. Jerry, with his signature handlebar tamed into a freshly dyed goatee configuration, is commonly known as the “Mayor of Burlesque” in Dallas and, in the absence of his namesake hat, Jerry could be unrecognizable. Such a simple but impactful change makes me wonder if Clark Kent’s glasses really did fool his workmates, however implausible.
Host Patti Le Plae Safe reminded me of a slightly less polished Kevin Spacey in drag, and she may have struggled with a couple of the introductions and transition, but it’s hard to blame her because the audience really wasn’t giving her a lot to work with. And with what seemed to be some last-minute changes to the performance roster and an intermission, the costume contest mentioned at the beginning of the show was never mentioned again, which was probably for the better.
The final performance was Vita DeVoid doing a slow strip as Lady Gaga’s character The Countess, which climaxed with what would otherwise be a camp use of fake blood. It was a great act. But as she stepped from the stage, there remained a puddle of fake blood left, as well as some spatters on my arms and bald head. I’d be a liar if that didn’t immediately jolt me back to the graphic horrors that couldn’t be unseen from the last week’s videos: what seemed to be a growing puddle of blood that the Baton Rouge police created in the chest of Alton Sterling; the blood-soaked t-shirt of the dying Philando Castile; the blood-smeared ambulance photo tweeted by a paramedic; and what I think was a glimpse of one or more puddles of blood under wounded or dying police officers. Despite the diversions of the evening, my mood darkened, and probably colored (red) some of the interactions I had with people before I left.
And at the end of my very short walk home, I was literally stopped in my tracks by the sight of a police car stopped in front of my building. The cop inside probably on the phone or doing some paperwork. I felt my heart skip a beat as I thought about what (if anything) to say, especially considering that I’d probably just been replaying mental video of someone he/she probably knew, laying on the ground in a pool of blood. I didn’t want to bother him. I didn’t want to be a guy with a bunch of gear strapped to my body, surprising him from behind. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable with my own speechless discomfort.
In the end, I chose to just walk by behind his car, throwing the best sympathetic, quiet smile towards the general area of his rearview mirror in case he was looking.