Miss Rose’s quest to improve nerdery by adding nudity, and vice versa.
“It’s been rumored,” says the naked woman onstage — the third of the four naked women onstage, that is; the elfin blonde who’s just risen from her seat between the brunette and the shackled mime — “that Marilyn Monroe possessed an IQ of 168. That’s equivalent to the IQ of Albert Einstein.” In the span of the tiny pause she leaves to emphasize that thought, an abrupt clatter echoes from the back of the makeshift theater, as if the assertion has startled someone into dropping their belongings, dumbfounded. That’s not actually what happened; the noise is a coincidence. Still, everyone laughs, audience and naked women alike, and the shared vibe of the laughter suggests they’re all imagining the same hypothetical chauvinist who might never before have pondered the idea that a glamorous beauty could also be a genius. Then they collect themselves, and the blonde begins reading an excerpt from Marilyn Monroe’s autobiography.
This is Naked Girls Reading, a bimonthly performance series that offers precisely what it says on the label: literary readings in the nude by some of the city’s finest and brainiest burlesque dancers. The concept was birthed three years ago in Chicago — the latest twist on an underground phenomenon that’s been dubbed “nerdlesque,” the mixing of saucy stagework with geeky culture — and quickly franchised by ambitious performer-producers in some 20 cities around the English-speaking world.
Here in Philadelphia, where Naked Girls Reading has had big crowd-pleasing hits with shows themed around the likes of science fiction and fantasy author Neil Gaiman, the woman at the helm is Miss Rose, a 27-year-old dancer and costume designer who’s been producing burlesque in town since 2010. The appeal of Naked Girls Reading, she says, is kind of a no-brainer to her: “Why would I not take two things that I love and put them together? Why would everyone not like this? Books! And naked girls! And sparkly things!”
OK, so that’s three things. To be fair, though, the sparkly things really come into play not at Naked Girls Reading, but at Miss Rose’s other alternating bimonthly nerdlesque series at PhilaMOCA, the film-themed Sexploitation Follies, which lines up an evening of striptease performances all themed around the work of a single cult-favorite movie director. Recent installments have featured topless renditions of the oeuvres of Tim Burton and horror director Dario Argento; this month it’ll be Wes Anderson of Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom fame.
A few days after Naked Girls Reading’s night of memoirs, Miss Rose sits in her North Philly living room, TV remote in hand, ready to dive into an careful viewing of Moonrise Kingdom to note costume and art-direction cues she can adapt for her own number in the Wes Anderson show.
Next to her on the couch sits 22-year-old Hayley Jane, no longer glamorously naked in character as Marilyn Monroe. The two, unintentionally dressed to match in teal-colored tights, pulled-back hair and glasses, might as well be study partners for a graduate film-theory class as they intently freeze-frame on the movie’s first shot of child actress Kara Hayward as Suzy and begin dissecting her bright peach dress. They hit play, examine it from a new angle, hit pause again, repeat. “That’s an Empire-line dress?” Hayley Jane asks.
“It’s either Empire or A-line,” Rose agrees.
“It’s got stripes, too — no, it’s checkered. With that little belt. It would be fun to take that off.”
The screen cuts to a close-up shot of Suzy holding a children’s book. “I love the typography in this,” Rose sighs.
“I’m going to need a basket with a cat,” Hayley Jane notes a few minutes later. “I feel like the cat basket is the most important prop for her character.” She feels that way, at least, until Suzy opens the suitcase she’s carrying to reveal it’s full of her favorite books. “Well, I need the suitcase of books,” Hayley Jane realizes out loud, at the same time that, onscreen, Suzy’s explaining the details of her library: “Usually I prefer girl heroes, but not always.”
They figure it all out, their fangirly business unfolding amid the backdrop of Rose’s myriad bookshelves: a Gaiman shelf, a pulp fiction shelf, a Nancy Drew shelf. And eventually the film—a sweet, childlike paean to young love between two pure-minded 12-year-old outsiders — works its way around to the musical cue Rose and Hayley Jane have been waiting to hear, a 1960s-era French ballad they plan to use as their soundtrack onstage. “I am so excited for all the awkward dancing we get to do,” Rose says.
Hayley Jane stares off into space as she thinks her way through the choreography of appropriately innocent-seeming clothing removal. “We should sit facing each other,” she muses, “and you take one of my socks off, and I take one of your socks off, and then we both lean back — “ She mimes a slow, balletic arch. “Not so much dancing as posture-and-peel.”
As excited as Rose is for the Wes Anderson show, she’s got dozens of costumes on the rack upstairs from past nerdlesque numbers she loved just as much: a Monty Python and the Holy Grail bit (“I made a knight’s costume from scratch, but the day of the show I was frantically trying to find a coconut”), a Ferris Bueller bit (“I come out with a sheet, and cough and pretend I’m going to sleep”), a Big Lebowski bit (“That’s my bowling ball — her name is Louise”). And she suspects her most popular geekout yet may come in June, when the Sexploitation Follies will put on a Peter Jackson night. Asked a seemingly obvious question — will the Lord of the Rings number feature an interpretation of Cate Blanchett’s sexy elven queen, Galadriel? — Rose shrugs. She’s got something nerdier than that in mind. “Apparently,” she says, “Hazel Honeysuckle has an Ent act that’s beautiful.”
Miss Rose’s Sexploitation Follies: Wes Anderson Burlesque takes place Sat., April 20 at 10pm, in conjunction with the Cinedelphia Film Festival. PhilaMOCA, 531 N. 12th St. cinedelphiafilm festival.com.
Three citywide brainy festivals. One skyscraper-sized game of Pong. Infinite future possibilities. And a 70-year flashback to sci-fi history.
PW's Holiday Guide 2014