You can’t spell “literature” without “t” and “a.” This is the tagline of Naked Girls Reading, a staged series that is exactly what it sounds like: a group of naked women (burlesque dancers by trade) reading classic works of literature aloud to an adoring crowd of onlookers. Chicago burlesque performers Michelle L’Amour and Franky Vivid conceived the idea when one walked in on the other reclining nude on a couch while reading at the apartment they shared. Since then, the event has expanded to over a dozen cities in the U.S. and internationally.
I stumbled across the event while Google searching a friend of mine who moonlights as a burlesque dancer. As a closet fan of burlesque, I felt the event was worth a look-see. Fortuitously, the next event in New York was Shakespeare Night, and me, a man of the stage. The night I attended, a fairly normal-looking crowd of people was lined up outside of the East Village’s Under Saint Marks Theater, eager to be let in. The group wouldn’t have looked out of place outside Mamma Mia!, but Naked Girls Reading is not your standard night life attraction.
The show was hosted by New York burlesque performer Nasty Canasta and featured a rotating ensemble of girls under cheeky pseudonyms such as Iris Explosion and Sapphire Jones. Each girl entered wearing robes, Shakespearean frilled collars and Renaissance style caps with feathers. As the girls were introduced, their robes dropped to the floor, along with their inhibition. The evening’s material ran the gamut of standard Shakespearean fare — plenty from Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, as well as several of the sonnets, and a scene or two from the “The Scottish Play.” The selections also veered into the realm of Shakespeare-inspired works such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, selections from the Oscar-winning Shakespeare In Love and West Side Story, and of course the “classic” 10 Things I Hate About You. If some of this sounds a bit highbrow, remember it was being read aloud by naked women 10 feet away, making the giggle factor especially high from the performers and the crowd. There was always an emphasis on humor — how can there not be when one of the selected works is an extended list of Shakespearean phrases for genitalia? Did you know that he once used “den of spices” to describe a vagina? You do now!
Four of the five girls were trained actresses with experience performing Shakespeare. It was easy to see their *ahem* profound classical assets in the presentation. Any sense of pretention was left at the door, as all five of the women seemed not only comfortable being naked in a room full of strangers, but gleefully excited by it. By the night’s end, all the girls were patting each other on the back and grinning from ear to ear. They even had a door prize for the evening: a new edition of The Riverside Shakespeare Anthology, signed by that evening’s performers. When the lucky winner walked onstage to claim his prize, Nasty Canasta christened it by furiously rubbing her breasts on pages 1404 and 1405. She described it as an autograph.
The audience that night all seemed to be in on the joke. Several of them commented on having attended in the past and declared that evening’s gathering as the “best yet.” For a feature with live nude girls, there was a well-behaved crowd with an almost equal division of genders. In fact, many of the women that night seemed more into it than the men. My own girlfriend, who had asked to come along under the mistaken impression that this was a traditional burlesque show, was a little more ill-at-ease, but grew more tolerant as the evening went on.
Later, as we walked home, she commented on how she felt the event may have unintentionally objectified its performers under the intention of empowering them. It was a fair point. The event, billed somewhat inaccurately as “burlesque,” seems built largely on shock value. It’s an intriguing idea whose novelty, much like a Girls Gone Wild video, wears off after about 20 to 30 minutes. Sure, as a heterosexual male, it’s always fun to see a naked girl, but a sense of “is that all there is?” set in midway. The girls were up there voluntarily, and didn’t seem to be embarrassed or uncomfortable. Yet as I watched, I couldn’t help but feel like the boy who snuck into the girls’ locker room: slightly elated, but strangely uneasy about it all. I’m used to seeing naked girls in a strip club, but in a theater it somehow felt a little off. Maybe I’m being prudish, or anally P.C., but I’m not sure I’ll be frequenting the event in the future. That’s not to say it isn’t worth seeing. It certainly wasn’t a waste of time, but not something I’d go out of my way for again.