The art form was made up of supershort segments arranged in a slapdash manner, combining music and sensational images, often with simplistic humor and infantile scenarios. By that definition, no matter what moralists say, music videos differ little from vaudeville, except that the clothes have changed. So it’s only natural that Laura Cohen and Christopher Ellis are trying to tie in the old with the new in their weekly “Vaudeville Nights” showcase at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre.
“Our idea is not to resurrect vaudeville from the ashes as in some sick nostalgic fantasy, but to work within the structures of vaudeville to create a new theatrical experience,” Ellis says. “This is not a museum piece or, worse, Disney. We shouldn’t forget that 60 years have passed since then.”
Even so, vaudeville’s mix of performance styles appealed to Cohen and Ellis. Every week their two-hour show features nine different acts, each lasting ten minutes. “When you go to see vaudeville, you’re not just seeing one art form,” Cohen says. “We have a lot of physical acts. We even have belly dancers. It’s a madhouse of stimuli.”
There’s still a hint of the old shtick. “We highlight broad-gestured pieces reminiscent of commedia dell’arte and comedians like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and even the Marx Brothers,” says Ellis. Everyone who works in the house the night of the show–ticket takers, ushers, stage managers, and box-office personnel–is encouraged to jump in and out of the proceedings at whim. “There’s constant action,” Ellis says. “There’s always something to look at.”
Earlier this year Cohen and Ellis put out the call to a range of theater and dance companies. “We sent out hundreds of submission forms,” Cohen says. “We also put up really pretty posters in theaters and performance spaces and places where performers hang out, asking for acts to participate.” At first they were afraid that people wouldn’t take them seriously. “At the bottom of the posters we had to put ‘This is not a joke.'”
Based on the quick response, they must have been in the right place at the right time. Several vaudeville-style revues have thrived here in the last few years, most notably “Milly’s Orchid Show,” organized by Brigid Murphy. “We found that a lot of people are interested in this form,” says Cohen. The response was even more surprising considering that the performers aren’t paid.
The lineup changes every week. Like old vaudeville, there’s a dizzying array of acts, though the slant is modern. This Wednesday, the National Pastime Theater performs “The Blue Aspic,” a silent play based on the morbid works of Edward Gorey; the Curious Theatre Branch stages a skit about a wacky surgeon, called “The Doctor Is Out to Lunch” (doctor sketches were a staple of early vaudeville); Frank Melcori does “fabulously bad” magic tricks as Melcori the Italian; comedian Jennifer Biddle performs a monologue about the Congo; John Huss sings original songs; Russell Mast plays the theremin; someone named He Who Has No Name does something called “Satanic magic” (“No animals will be harmed,” Cohen promises); choreographer Winifred Haun presents a solo dance; and the Mary-Arrchie Theatre performs the “Dead Dwarf Intermezzo.”
Ellis and Cohen hope “Vaudeville Nights” will continue beyond its six-week run. But, Cohen admits, “It’s difficult to organize nine acts every week. That’s why it hasn’t been done much prior to this.” There is an upside, however. “We’re able to do more because we’re the only ones so far who’ve been mad enough to want to.”
“Vaudeville Nights” runs Wednesdays at 8 through June 24 at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre, Angel Island, 731 W. Sheridan. Tickets cost $5. Call 773-871-0442 for reservations and information. –Michael G. Glab
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo of Laura Cohen and Christopher Ellis by J.B. Spector.