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PERFORMANCE ART

Lucha VaVoom and Cirque Berzerk are L.A.'s theater of the odd

One is based on lucha libre wrestling. The other has roots in Burning Man. Both gain a foothold.

July 19, 2009|Reed Johnson

Don't be fooled by her riding crop, her past career as a porn-film costumer or her penchant for punk rock and Russ Meyer flicks. Take all that away, and Rita D'Albert is a nice Jewish girl from Flushing, Queens, who adores Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and Carnaby Street fashion and gets mushy over Broadway show tunes.

An actor, dancer and former guitarist with the all-female rock band the Pandoras, D'Albert turned to making alternative theater a decade ago, convinced that Angeleno audiences craved something with a bit more glitz and bite than the traditional "well-made" play.

"When Bush was in, you didn't need to be a genius to see we were going to need shows like Busby Berkeley to get us through our new depression," she said over lunch at a Silver Lake vegan restaurant.

Today, D'Albert and her producing partner Liz Fairbairn are the brains behind Lucha VaVoom, the aggressively outre mash-up of Mexican lucha libre wrestling, burlesque striptease and post-punk vaudeville that recently packed in a motley, spirited crowd at downtown's Art Deco-style Mayan Theatre. Now in its seventh year, Lucha VaVoom produces new shows annually and is one of a modest but increasing number of hard-to-classify homegrown L.A. entertainments that are stretching the boundaries of live performance. In doing so, these shows are attracting audiences whose theatrical tastes are as likely to have been shaped by B-movies, comic books and music videos as by "Hello, Dolly!" or the collected works of Arthur Miller.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 19, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Alternative theater: An article in today's Arts & Books section about L.A. alternative theater says that Lucha VaVoom producer Rita D'Albert once managed a Dutch rock band called Gore. She previously managed the American rock group GWAR.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 26, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Band manager: An article last Sunday about L.A. alternative theater said Lucha VaVoom producer Rita D'Albert once managed a Dutch rock band called Gore. She previously managed the American group GWAR.

"Audiences are so self-conscious here. They're more concerned about who's looking at them than about what they're watching," said Fairbairn, a college art major who spent nearly a decade managing the Dutch rock band Gore. "But it's amazing about Lucha VaVoom. People walk in the doors and they just drop all that crap."

A similarly posture-free party atmosphere pervades Cirque Berzerk's "Beneath," a Weimar cabaret-inspired, Goth-rock big top production that recently reextended its run under a 1,700-capacity circus tent in the Los Angeles State Historic Park ("The Cornfield") on the edge of Chinatown.

Originally conceived in a stripped-down form in 2004 for the Burning Man gatheringGilbert and Sullivan in the Nevada desert, "Beneath" was forged by the artistic director tag team of producer/co-creator Suzanne Bernel; her husband, composer/co-creator Kevin Bourque; and choreographer Neal Everett.

"At Burning Man, if you're doing anything that seems crazy you're going to get good feedback," Bourque, 42, an Emmy-nominated film editor, said while a makeup artist transformed his face into the ghoulish mask of the show's Stygian ringmaster.

Occupying an intersection of performance art, rock music, circus, burlesque, physical theater and extreme sports, Lucha and Cirque are shotgun weddings of old-school razzle-dazzle, avant-garde experimentation and neo-retro versions of genres once regarded as too marginal or disreputable to enter the mainstream.

The prevailing aesthetic calls for a certain number of rough edges and a do-it-yourselfer enthusiasm. Although neither show really crosses the line from PG-13 into R territory, the occasional raunchiness is more couples-friendly than family-friendly.

Yet both shows present themselves as sleaze-free zones, where the emphasis is on the stylized sublimation of erotica. "To me the idea of doing nudity is a little cheap," Bourque said. "We all know it's sexier to see a girl in lingerie than naked."

Judging by two recent performances, both Lucha and Cirque are drawing crowds that mirror the diversity of contemporary Los Angeles. Both shows' audiences are amalgams of female and male, gay and straight, young and middle age, upwardly mobile and aspirational, Asian, Latino, African American and white.

An evening at Lucha VaVoom loosely centers on four or five bouts in which masked, flamboyantly costumed Mexican wrestlers with names like (the foul-minded) Dirty Sanchez and (the ultra-buff) El Presidente square off against each other in sweaty, mock-epic battles. The combatants divide into Tecnicos (good guys) and Rudos (bad guys), enacting cartoon morality plays that both satirize and celebrate Mexican politics and pop culture.

But that's only the main course. Lucha VaVoom's in-between appetizers typically include aerial acts, "mini" wrestlers (be careful not to call them midgets) and pneumatically gifted burlesque artists (most, but not entirely, female) parading to pop tunes that go with the mix-and-match motifs (the Ohio Players' "Fire" with firefighters, for instance). "Putting the girls in is kind of like ginger to your sushi," D'Albert said. Casts are drawn from professional Lucha Libre wrestlers, some famous (such as Blue Demon Jr. and El Hijo del Santo), as well as professional striptease artists.

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