Poonie’s Cabaret brightens mid-winter blues with a not-so-classic nod to the classics

On a cold, rainy Monday in February, a time many probably intended for quiet night in, Poonie’s Cabaret brought a hollering, intimate crowd into Links Hall for dance, music, laughter and a reminder of the pure joy that comes from letting loose (and shedding a couple layers) when we would normally let the gray weather get the best of us. 

As co-curators and revivers of Poonie’s Cabaret, Bazuka Joe (Ken Gasch) and Ray Gunn (Chris McCray) premiered “Classical Masters” Feb. 17 at Links Hall to honor Valentines Day and give a nod to traditional forms of burlesque through a short-but-sweet evening of scandalous dance set to spins on classical music. Originally created by Poonie Dodson, Poonie’s Cabaret was resurrected in 2019 after a brief hiatus to give emerging and seasoned performers a chance to test new material and works-in-progress through cabaret-style shows. All proceeds go to the Duncan Erley Coming Out of the Closet Fund, supporting Chicago’s queer and emerging artist community.

Ray Gunn’s show opener fell flat due to his lack of engagement with the audience—despite his inventive costume design that used strings echoing that of a violin’s to hold the various pieces together—but on the whole, the evening stood out for its fun audience and performer interaction. As my first Poonie’s Cabaret, the treat of the hour-long evening came from the wide variety in each act. With opera, live piano, a twist on pole dancing and more, Poonie’s proved that “classical” does not mean traditional, and it definitely does not mean boring. Highlights of the six solo acts were Sio Bast’s feather fan dance, Melbo The Clown’s not-so-strip-tease and Bazuka Joe’s unicorn dance. 

Giving off medieval devil vs. angel vibes, Bast added on to an existing solo that uses white feather fans with a skirt/cape dance using black fabric that glided through the air when she spun and curved her arms through the space. It was the regalness in her face and how she gave the fans and skirt their own personality that kept the graceful act fun and coy. Bazuka Joe closed out the evening strong, dressed in a unicorn headpiece, hooves and tail as he marched and romped across the stage with a long pole, accompanied by classical horn. He seamlessly mixed weird, comedically not-sexy horse moves with lofted leaps and spins through the air assisted by the pole. 

In the only act where the performer did not strip down practically nude, Melbo The Clown (Meaghan Morris) lost only one combat boot while keeping the audience laughing hysterically the entire time. Melbo frantically broke in and out of beautiful opera singing, distracted by audience members with whom she shared cute paper valentines (valentines that she pulled out of her baggy pants and shirt). Melbo’s act brought to life the comedic vaudeville aspect of burlesque, and it was refreshing to have in the mix of so many sensual strip teases.  

Woven in and out of each act was amped emceeing by puppet Chad Bird whose loud vocal inflection and corny jokes succeeded in cutting through any Monday-night and winter exhaustion in the audience, warming the space. Artists were also given the chance to talk a little bit about their work, which was a great way to bring context to what the artists were experimenting with in the different acts: like learning how Renee Ryder mixed classical piano with RB to create her “Dr. Jekkyl and Mistress Hyde” act, or how Jessica Sunset picked the piano piece “Arabesque” that she both played live and recorded to accompany her burlesque nod to ballet. 

Poonie’s Cabaret provided a brief relief from the winter sads, creating an intimate space to enjoy dance and music for the pure fun of it. The theme “Classical Masters” gave a clear jumping off point for experimentation among the artists and provided unique performances for the audience.  For that hour in Links Hall, I was reminded of the good that comes when we take a moment to brave the cold, enjoy each other’s company and see fun art.