Review of For Your Eyes Only, Yale Cabaret
“What was great about the scene was that people’s curiosity seemed stronger than their fear.”—Legs McNeil
Legs McNeil was talking about the punk rock scene in the East Village around CBGB’s in the late 1970s, but his comment could be extended to the “scene” of theater in the late 2010s. As performed, presented and commented upon by Alex Vermillion, as Ladie Lilith, in For Your Eyes Only, a two-person theater piece with Chelsea Siren, sex-work comprises everything from burlesque to drag shows to sex-cams to strippers to porn to hookers. The concept aspect of Vermillion’s show has to do with the tension between theater and sex-work, in terms of their ends and means. But the piece also invites its audience to let its curiosity overcome its fear—of all those “judgmental eyes,” if nothing else.
Theater can simulate sex for the sake of storytelling; pornography performs sex as the whole story. Vermillion’s show trusts in theatricality as the glue that holds both theater and porn together. Both are about seeing, showing, performing, with most sex acts following a tried and true narrative arc. And therein lies analogy enough for a performance piece.
Forget the sleazy sex clubs of the old Times Square. Ladie Lilith, like a madam with a brand, is all about making happen whatever the client is comfortable with or curious about. Lilith, sometimes wearing only a G-string, is working a room rather than a one-on-one for hire situation—making the ‘your’ in the show’s title ironically plural. Thus, she risks arousing some, turning off others, and generally making her audience witness the sorts of things that sex-work might entail, depending on whose tastes it is catering to. That might mean a slink and pout routine (formerly bump and grind), or a charming Little Mermaid, à la Disney, singing of a panoply of sex toys and lingerie, or simulated copulation between a top and a bottom, or, in a very inventive staging, a “golden shower” routine in which audience members are asked to shoot squirt guns into Lilith’s mouth to the tune of David Bowie’s “Golden Years”—“Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel.”
Through it all, Vermillion and Siren keep a firm grasp on (or is that labile tongue inserted in) their sense of burlesque. And yet, because this is Yale Cabaret, it isn’t real burlesque, and that adds a dimension to the proceedings that makes it analytic. That element becomes all too clear when, during a time-consuming onstage number that entails an intricate BDSM device, actors in voice-over speak the words of actual sex-workers interviewed as background. Acts of “bondage” and “submission” as elements of sexual fantasy and sex-work meet the fact of sex-work as a kind of sadomasochistic other of “straight” theater. Vermillion’s show never lets us forget that bodies are on the line in theater, no matter how we label it, but the voices let us know that there is still a fine line between “a show” and “a trick.”
Burlesque, of course, was the theatrical form that made a show of sexuality, lampooning the tropes of dress-up and role play and tease and release for the sake of entertainment. How comfortable an audience is with laughing about the sexual underside of daily life makes for burlesque's risqué element. The difference with sex-work is that working for actual arousal and orgasm can be many things—sordid, suggestive, salacious, stimulating—but what it can’t be is “just a show” (it’s not called a “money shot” for nothing). By Vermillion’s own admission—in the “talk back” portion of the show—one-on-one cam-work stymies her. She wants a live audience. Certainly, because that’s where burlesque and theater both thrive. The nature of cam-work, like phone-sex or cyber, is the promise of a fantasized intimacy that might make costuming and nudity incidental.
Here, the show aspects are key: the costumes, props, music, movement, lighting and stage management are there to be appreciated. The show feels at times like a classroom intro—“kinky sex 101”—and at other times feels like an empowerment seminar about being oneself, owning one’s body, and having fun with whatever you’ve got to work with. That’s the progressive element of the show, and it asks us to countenance a world in which “doing it for money” isn’t stigmatized and where degradation and humiliation are just a state of mind. There’s also, perhaps, a certain nagging question hovering: you can put sex in show-biz and show-biz in sex, but when having sex is a show, is it real?
At the end of the show, Lilith, on cam, asks the audience how it feels. It’s a good question, and she throws some possible answers at us, multiple-choice style. As a meta-moment, the question of affect become a survey topic. And that’s one of the more interesting aspects of the show: however collective an audience may be, the eyes and ears and minds in attendance will be experiencing different aspects of that continuum between sex for show and show as sex as individuals. Ultimately, For Your Eyes Only is in service to what seems a very humane curiosity about what turns people on, what turns people off, what gets us off, what makes the show go on—and how all that plays into what “makes the world go ‘round.”
For Your Eyes Only
By Alex Vermilion
Directed by Alex Vermillion
Producers: Laurie Ortega-Murphy, Laura Cornwall; Dramaturg, Advisor: Evan Hill; Sound Designer & Composer: Dakota Stipp; Lighting Designer: Daniela Fresard-Montero; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Set Designer: Amanda Creech; Technical Director: Alex McNamara; Stage Manager: Samantha Tirrell; Videographer: Amauta Marston-Firmino; Commissioned Choreographer & Movement Specialist: Yasin (Ya-Ya) Fairley; Projection Designer: Ben Jones
Performers: Chelsea Siren, Alex Vermillion
January 11-13, 2018