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Baking Cookies with the Bearded Ladies

by Steve Desroches

“Under the cover of an evening’s relaxing entertainment, cabaret, like nothing else, suddenly dispenses a poison cookie. Suggestively administered and hastily swallowed, its effect reaches far beyond the harmless evening to make otherwise placid blood boil and inspire a sluggish brain to think.” – Friedrich Hollaender

A star composer in the Weimar Era of Germany, Friedrich Hollaender founded the Tingel-Tangle-Theater cabaret in Berlin in 1931, a perilous time as the Nazis continued their thuggish march to power. Audiences in the wild German capital wanted to escape from the troubles of the day, diving into the delightful hedonism that flourished in Berlin. But the dire political and cultural circumstances facing Germany, and Europe, were never far from the minds of many, including Hollaender, who, being of Jewish descent, was particularly vulnerable to the hatred at the core of the Nazi philosophy. Just like the court jester or the Hans Christian Andersen story The Emperor’s New Clothes, humor was not used as a distraction, but rather the sugar-coated bait to open people’s minds to think of the issues of the day. It’s those poison cookies that Philadelphia’s Bearded Ladies Cabaret so carefully bake and will serve as they appear at the Afterglow Festival, Provincetown’s annual September event that brings in the best of experimental live performance.

The Bearded Ladies Cabaret explores the politics of our culture, sex, gender, and the limitless expanse of ar, creating a uniquely queer cabaret using drag, imagination, and a shit-ton of glitter. Those words spoken by Hollaender all these years ago are part of the heart, soul, and mind of what the Bearded Ladies Cabaret is all about. Attracting an audience with splash, fun, and flash while sprinkling pixie dust on these troubled times, the Bearded Ladies Cabaret reaches out to make that sacred connection with an audience. For those inclined to despair with the cacophony of bad news rat-a-tatting on our world’s window, it can be an added challenge to soothe an audience into surrendering to the spell of cabaret. That’s why the Bearded Ladies Cabaret examined the traditional tools of the performance style and explores sincerity through a glitter and glam lens with their show You Can Never Go Down the Drain: A Mx Rogers Musical Healing Ritual for Adults, a trip to the comforting world of Mr. Rogers, which they’ll perform this Thursday night.

“We needed to break up with irony and to get it on with what’s earnest,” says John Jarboe, founder and artistic director of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret. “What is the earnest-est if not Mr. Rogers?”

The title of the show comes from a song written by the children’s show host in 1969 that, through music, allayed any fears small children might have that they would be sucked down the drain during bath time. Mr. Rogers’ ability to connect with the fears of children, fears that many adults forget having when they were small, made it so he could speak directly to what his young audience was thinking and feeling, but through songs, stories, jokes, and puppets. The Bearded Ladies Cabaret takes that tactic and aesthetic and presents it through experimental queer cabaret, constructing a queer Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

It can be hard to transport people to a world of make-believe when they’re already living in one via the Internet and their phones. Study after study, and anecdote after anecdote, shows that the more technology expands into our lives the more isolated people feel, and often become. Human interaction becomes labored, attention spans shortened, and patience thinned. But cabaret is by its nature an intimate art form, and if you are on your phone or talking during a Bearded Ladies Cabaret show, they will in turn talk to you, as there’s no fourth wall to begin with in cabaret. And Jarboe has noticed that cabaret in all forms around the country is growing in popularity, as it provides a live wire of authenticity and community so missing in our overbearing digital culture. Cabaret holds its audiences accountable, says Jarboe. When they are on stage they are not an iPhone or a meme, they are a real experience, of which you are a part. Audiences have forgotten how to be accountable, as they’ve been allowed to, says Jarboe.

In cabaret, an audience acts as a bit of a Greek chorus, as whatever the vocal emotions elicited from the performance are the refrain, and with the Bearded Ladies Cabaret that would be laughter. But these, for a variety of reasons, feel like humorless times. Laughter soothes the soul, frees the spirit, and opens the mind, which in turn means it can be incredibly hard to do, at least difficult to achieve thoughtfully and with resonance. Its funny that the chicken crossed the road to get to the other side, but the sweet spot of comedy is what the bird did on the way over. And that requires thought, vision, and empathy.

“I think it’s a responsibility,” says Jarboe of making people laugh. “You can get an easy laugh easily. It’s fairly simple to fall into ironic tactics, to be a bully, to reflect a larger tone even as we may be fighting that tone. Take a little time to think about the jokes and who is the butt of that joke. I have no patience when queer people are dumping on other queer people.”

Creating an experimental queer cabaret has the added challenge of defining what that means in the first place. As the alphabet soup of identities illustrates, the LGBT+ community is not a monolith, and trying to treat it as such is fraught with pitfalls (though glitter does seem to have a universal appeal!) Creating a show that nails it requires both a microscope and a spyglass. No assumptions, but rather an appeal to a common journey. Although Jarboe makes no apologies for deep references. In this saturated Age of Information, there is no need for the unknown, especially when it comes to Ethel Merman.

“It hurts me when people don’t know who Ethel Merman is,” says Jarboe. “That’s complicated for me.”

John Jarboe & the Bearded Ladies Cabaret present You Can Never Go Down the Drain: A Mx. Rogers Musical Healing Ritual for Adults as part of the Afterglow Festival at the Art House, 214 Commercial St. on Thursday, September 12 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets ($30) are available at the box office and online at For more information call 508.487.9222.

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Graphic Artist

Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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