Out of the footnotes and onto the stage: the wild women of the Wild West get revealed in Send In The Girls’ new burlesque

Delia Barnett and Ellen Chorley in Soiled Doves, the latest from Send In The Girls Burlesque. Photo by db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The Wild West. Where men were men. And women were…. well, who were they anyhow, besides wearers of gingham or garters? 

That’s what Send In The Girls is for. They don’t just roll up their sleeves when it comes to the mysteries of woman power; they take ‘em off.

Cover-ups are anathema to the enterprising troupe that has set about marrying burlesque to theatre, in revues that unbutton  nostalgia and find innovative theatricality underneath. In the past they’ve exercised their historical bent and sassy sense of humour on such improbable and diverse subjects as the wives of Henry VIII (Tudor Queens), the Victorian literati (A Bronte Burlesque), Shakespeare’s heroines (Shakespeare’s Sirens). Most recently, they paid tribute to the unsung women of Canadian history (With Glowing Hearts, a revue hosted by Nellie McClung). 

“Burlesque,” declares Send In The Girls’ dauntless resident playwright Ellen Chorley, “is all about shedding. Shedding gender roles and ideas of what women could do.”

And so it is with Soiled Doves: A Burlesque With Boots On, premiering Thursday at the Backstage Theatre. It’s a dust-up with stereotypes: it takes us into a world that has always exuded machismo, and finds “the rough, tough women” (as Chorley puts it) we didn’t know about because the fine print of history is too damn small.

On an arctic day last week, when the idea of taking off your coat much less any of your four sweaters was unthinkable, Chorley and her cast-mate Morgan Yamada talked over lunch about the startling gallery of real-life unknowns that the former’s research has uncovered.

Rancher Josie Bassett, for example, has always been an add-on to the story of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch; she seems to have been a magnet for outlaws. Chorley herself, Send In The Girls’ co-artistic director (with Delia Barnett), plays Josie. 

Yamada, an up-and-comer whose career includes fight choreography and clowning in addition to acting, plays Kitty LeRoy, who worked her way up from dance hall girl to card dealer to casino owner (The Mint, in Deadwood). As Yamada describes her, Kitty, a sharp-shooter of repute, wasn’t a woman to be trifled with. “She liked Bowie knives; she like guns.” And she evidently liked men. “She went through five husbands,” grins Yamada, who’s fascinated by the woman who “had a kid at 17, and decided ‘I don’t want to be a housewife’.”

Husband #2 was ill-advised enough to get on the wrong side of Kitty in an argument. She put on men’s clothes and shot him in a duel, then married him while he was dying. By 27 Kitty was dead, shot by husband #5. 

“She fizzled out young, but she got a lot done,” says Yamada, whose next gig is in Kamloops playing a hockey goalie in the Western Canada Theatre production of Tracey Power’s Glory.

Yamada alludes to the way women exist only in historical footnotes. The assumption that the women of the Old West were merely support players, behind the scenes bandaging wounds, digging bullets out of heroes, having babies, is “a misconception,” she says. “Women owned saloons, brothels…. They made money; they were the ones who built schools and hospitals.”

People were moving into a new world, and there was a freedom in that,” says Chorley, who’s also the director of Nextfest and artistic director of Promise Productions. “People were (forging) their own paths.”

Curiously, as Yamada points out, three of the four characters in Soiled Doves, on either side of the law, went to finishing school. Belle Starr, Barnett’s assignment in Soiled Doves, was a “super-well educated Southerner,” as Chorley describes her. “She knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew; she always had a book in her hand.” She was also a career horse thief, a bandit queen who ran a sort of hostel for the similarly inclined. 

Canadian-born Pearl Hart, played by Sydney Parcey, has the distinction of being one off the most infamous stagecoach robbers in the American West. Not only did she go to boarding school, she even starred in a dime store novel, albeit lie-filled, Chorley discovered. Hart is a repository of contradictory influences: at one point she went to Chicago and saw star activist Julia Ward Howe, the abolitionist and suffragette best known for writing Battle Hymn of the Republic

What has struck Yamada is that “even in a world where all the clichés are macho, if you have drive to succeed you can do it wherever you are…. It’s always been a struggle. And women have always pushed back.”

“When we tell a story through burlesque,” says Chorley, “we’re using it as a way to break barriers, to uncover. It’s all about satire; it’s done with a wink. We use burlesque to subvert the clichés…” And in burlesque, the fourth wall never exists. “We never pretend the audience isn’t there.” And as for the audience, they don’t have to be docile and pretend they’re not there either, as Send In The Girls’ rambunctious sold-out houses testify. 

The two grin conspiratorially and hint mysteriously about “the cool theatricality” of the show. “We’ve learned some Wild West tricks,” says Yamada. “You’ll see….”

PREVIEW

Soiled Doves: A Burlesque With Boots On

Theatre: Send In The Girls

Written by: Ellen Chorley

Directed by: Lana Michelle Hughes

Starring: Delia Barnett, Ellen Chorley, Sydney Parcey, Morgan Yamada

Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: through Jan. 27

Tickets: tickets.fringetheatre.ca or the door

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