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'The Poetry Brothel’: Politics, Poetry, and Sex

Poetry Brothel
An actress from Poetry Brothel performs. Poetry Brothel is a poetry event that offers poetry readings, jazz music, and dance.
After I hand the young woman a poker chip as compensation, she leads me through tables of patrons, palm readers, and burlesque dancers to reach a velvet-draped private room. We settle onto the couches as live jazz from the main stage drifts through the curtains, our bodies separated only by a table adorned with a crystal ball, a broken rosary, and tarot cards. There, she inquires about my literary preferences, opens her leather book of poetry, and begins to read.

This is “The Poetry Brothel,” an event that brings out the mysticism and magic of poetry by performing it in the setting of an early 20th century bordello. The show itself brings together disparate acts in order to create an atmosphere of chaos and hedonism. At the beginning of the event, guests sit and receive an introduction to the various poetic “whores” before purchasing the chips that serve as currency in the Brothel. The evening alternates between mainstage events—including dancing, aerial acts, and spoken word performances—and periods where patrons are expected to circulate the room, trading their chips for tarot and palm readings and private poetry sessions with a “whore” of their choice. The show’s elements were on their own captivating, but unwieldy transitions and confusing emceeing made for an altogether incoherent event.

“The Poetry Brothel” used OBERON’s space to the fullest in an attempt to create an immersive experience for the patrons. Along the edge of the stage were merchandise for purchase and trinkets that followed the show’s eclectic, vintage, and mystical theme. The “Madame” of the brothel, as well as Mr. Charlie, the emcee, sat on that edge alongside a charcoal artist in a bowler hat, making bawdy jokes and conversing with each passerby. The actors filled the room: in the back at a full bar, on the balcony, and in fabric-sectioned lounge rooms for private readings. With the help of a well-placed spotlight, they read poetry while jauntily perched atop the bar and balcony as the aerial artist danced overhead. Stations of fortune tellers and roaming poets soliciting guests for their readings filled what floor space was left over. There were spectacles everywhere an audience member looked, and it was nearly impossible to lose interest.

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In addition to the staging, the actors delivered strong performances: the burlesque was dark and provocative, the jazz was appropriately salacious, and the poetic identities of the “whores” were exceptionally well-developed and executed. The actors spoke with passion and clearly knew their characters well, cracking off-the-cuff jokes about their assumed identities. However, the show lacked meaningful cohesion. There was very little flow of events, and 45 minutes had passed before guests fully understood the system of currency. This particular showing had also been branded as a “Twin Peaks”-themed special, so much of the humor was indiscernible from weird, random, too-persistent inside jokes. The transitions, conventions, and emceeing were overall confusing and obscure.

One of the few unifying threads of the evening was the overtly political statements that punctuated the show, from the introduction of several “whores” as genderqueer to a mid-show public service announcement on the importance of consent in any sexual encounter. Statements condemning modern society and the current administration wove through the event in every dimension. Poets delivered passionate rejections of gender and sexual norms, and the emcee sarcastically encouraged the audience to spend their money before the United States reverted to a barter system. At times, this emphasis on inclusivity created a self-aware undercurrent of earnestness that seemed to contradict an otherwise shockingly lawless experience. The effort by “The Poetry Brothel” to create a unique literary experience had strong subparts, but fell flat because of an overall lack of clarity and contradictions in tone. Arthouses of all kinds have historically been hotbeds of political deviance, and for the creators of this show, this came along with other aspects of bordellos, taboos and all.

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