By J. Scott Hill
Chicago may have barely had a winter this winter, but spring has certainly already sprung, which means that the Beast Women are back to prowl Lincoln Park late nights. The Greenhouse Theater Center is an apt home to the Beast Women 2012 Spring Series, as this all-female cabaret is always fresh, always growing.
Every performance of Beast Women 2012 Spring Series has a substantially different lineup, so every show is different. Still, Spring Series seems to have a greater focus on experience and polish than have some past series. The Beast Women producers pride themselves upon their rigorous audition process, and upon developing and showcasing emerging female talent. For the first time, the Beast Women 2012 Spring Series will be accompanied by a theatrical event exclusively featuring new talent, Beast Women Rising, which will run on Sunday, April 22.
As for the opening night of the main show, Beast Women 2012 Spring Series could not be finer.
The tone of any late night show is set by the host, and Michelle Power manages to amp up the crowds with a smooth, confident energy. Power is less like a comic emcee than she is like an action hero who takes the audience by the hand, inviting them to come with her if they want to live.
Elle Casazza’s voice and guitar work blend into a radio-friendly sound somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Lenka. Meredith Higgins and Nicole Dizon perform an unusual kind of act for a Beast Women show: musical theatre, specifically “Take Me or Leave Me” from RENT. Stalwart performance artist Jillian Erickson presents a piece that is in part about the deafening tick of her biological clock, despite her never intending nor desiring to have children.
Caitlin Bergh is a sharp young comedian who manages to exfoliate all the skeeviness from such techno-desperate acts as dating off of Craigslist and cyber-stalking ex-girlfriends. Funny and surprising, Bergh is a first-time Beast Woman with the shine of an old pro.
Burlesque dancer Bella Canto is just a country girl at heart — a wholesome, raunchy country girl.With a song on her lips and her clothes on the floor, she can certainly motivate an audience.
I think that belly dancer Mahira likes to mess with her audience. I think she wants her audience to think she’s a novice who took a belly dancing class and mustered up a little nerve, when in reality she is a highly skilled master of muscular control. Mahira likes to start small and build to ever more amazing displays of her art, and this dramatic effect is always crowd-pleasing.
When spoken word artist J. Butta speaks the sentence, “Your approval is like cancer,” audiences sit up straight and pay attention. She has no time for or patience with the lowest common denominator. Everyone thinks they can be a poet, which is why so much poetry is solipsistic bullshit; J. Butta is most definitely a poet, one who touches the larger truths that might otherwise go unspoken.
Red Hot Annie’s strawberry burlesque number is a simulacrum, a throwback to a sexier time that never really was. This kitschy, erotic delight would be just as welcome in an old Bettie Page stag film as it is in a Beast Women show, a retro-chic modern original.
Comedian Amy Sumpter is the Rodney Dangerfield for the 21st century: she don’t get no self-respect at all. Hopelessly tall and (for her comedy’s sake, anyway) graceless as a newborn giraffe, Sumpter does a header into her life as a single gal in the city, eats the pavement, and never tries to make out as if she meant to do that. Her comedy is raw and honest and the laughs are plentiful. Although all of the evening’s acts were splendid, the Beast Women producers should have saved Amy Sumpter to close the show because she owned opening night.
Beast Women 2012 Spring Series brings together many wonderfully talented women into one show. The challenging late night Lincoln Park crowds are no match for the Beast Women’s gravitas and class. This is cabaret at its best.
(“Beast Women 2012 Spring Series” runs Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. through May 12 (with the new talent showcase Beast Women Rising on Sunday, April 22 at 7:00 p.m.) at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago. 773-404-7336.)
Beast Women 2012 Spring Series performance images by Hunter Matthews.