A Very Burlesque Christmas

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by Jaiden van Bork

Many believe that all the fun in Provincetown ends along with the summer, but longtime visitors and locals alike know that the P-Town season isn’t complete without the yuletide festivities of Holly Folly. Now in its 25th year, the celebration is one of, if not the oldest LGBTQ holiday festivals in America. And just like everything else in town, this historic Helltown staple is also ever-evolving and changing. And this year it’s welcoming a brand-new show thanks to new Provincetown Business Guild Executive Director Stephan Hengst.

Roughly a decade ago, Hengst created Hung with Care, a queer holiday burlesque spectacular, while working with Big Gay Hudson Valley in New York. Along with his husband, Patrick Decker, Hengst founded the organization in 2008, attempting to connect the relatively disjointed queer community of the mid-Hudson-Valley region through arts and culture. “Unlike Provincetown, we didn’t have gay bars around,” says Hengst, “We didn’t have watering holes where we could all get together. So we created Big Gay Hudson Valley as a way to gather with friends.”

Since 2008, the organization has brought in iconic queer performers, hosted countless events and festivals, and provided numerous resources to the LGBTQ community of the area. The idea for Hung with Care didn’t manifest until 2011 though, when the return of “boylesque” made headlines in the New York Times, thanks to the work of performer Chris Harder (a.k.a. GoGo Harder), who ran a burlesque school in New York City. Inspired by this trend, Hengst drew on queer performers from the New York City area to create what he describes as “a fully scripted, two-hour long, produced, queer burlesque spectacular,” hoping to bring rural queer people together for the holidays.

Broody Valentino Photo: Atticus Media Productions

Hengst’s vision received backlash at first from the conservative community of the area. He says numerous threats and “nasty letters” were sent to the premiere venue in Poughkeepsie ahead of the sold-out show. However, this resistance only led to more buzz about the up-and-coming act, enabling the team to add a second performance that year and entertain a full house once again.

“It’s really become a crazy runaway thing over the years,” says Hengst. Now a decade into its run, the cast of the hit show has changed repeatedly, and Hung with Care has traveled up and down New York State, becoming a staple event for local queer communities.

“I think there [are] a lot of attendees who… have spent the whole holiday with their friends and their family,” says Hengst, “And by Friday or Saturday of Thanksgiving week, they’re like, alright, we all need a break—we’re going to take mom and dad to go see a burlesque show together, or we’re just going to get some time out of the house ourselves.”

The show offers a refreshingly different kind of holiday festivities, and an opportunity for families (chosen or otherwise) to experience something unique and exciting together. “It’s kind of nice to think about the holidays as a good excuse to get a little sexy,” says one of the show’s core performers, GoGo Gadget. “Cuddle up! Find a cuddle buddy!” Gadget, who goes by the name Alberto Denis off-stage, found his way to burlesque while working for Apple in New York City. Having been a dancer for over a decade, Denis had reached something of a juncture in his career, and was introduced to queer burlesque arts after attending a New York show featuring none other than boylesque master, Chris Harder. Denis was fascinated by the art form, and after attending Harder’s classes, he developed his own burlesque persona and began performing shows around New York in addition to his work in traditional theater. The dancer has seen much success since then, and in 2019 headlined the London Burlesque Festival — but not before being recruited by Hengst and company to perform in Hung with Care, to which he would return for every show but one thereafter.

This opportunity was unique for Denis. “I love that [burlesque artists] get to perform in pretty seedy places sometimes,” he says, “But here we were given an opportunity [to perform in] well-lit, theatrical settings… My theater-arts self was all about it.” As Hengst also stresses, Hung with Care has a high production value, and a pleasantly theatrical aspect to it that not every burlesque show provides.

The act also boasts a remarkable cast. Denis/Gadget is joined this year by notable performers like Pearls Dailey, Jack Barrow, Broody Valentino, and Boy Radio. And emceeing the show is none other than the Big Apple Circus’ first Afro-Latina ringmaster, Storm Marrero.

But Hung with Care is also very much a local affair, wherever it travels, recruiting local performers to join alongside the traveling cast. And Provincetown’s show is no exception, where the out-of-towners will be joined by Provincetown’s favorite rising burlesque stars: Mackenzie and her dolls.

It’s a cast of skilled burlesque veterans, united in a mission to celebrate the art form and its potential. While many people, particularly of an older generation, might dismiss burlesque (especially queer burlesque) as “low art” meant to reside in the underground, the cast of Hung with Care and other neo-burlesque performers around the globe feel that burlesque has a very important role to play.  “There’s so much sexual repression [and] conservatism around our bodies [and] how we interact with each other,” says Gadget, “One of my favorite things about burlesque is that [along with] it being very much about body positivity… I love that it’s also very sex positive. It’s a great vehicle for exploring that.”

And so, while Hung with Care might not be great for the kids, the rest of the family is encouraged to come along to the “adult-family-friendly” performance, as Gadget calls it—perhaps even the most conservative among them can take something away from this celebration of the body. If you’re feeling a little bored of run-of-the-mill holiday parties, Hallmark movies, and cookie-decorating this year – Hung with Care may have something truly special to offer you. This holiday season, choose burlesque.

Hung with Care: A Queer Holiday Burlesque Spectacular is performed on Saturday, December 3, 8:30 p.m., at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St., as part of the Holly Folly festival produced by the Provincetown Business Guild. For tickets ($45-$55) and information visit ptown.org/hollyfolly or call 508.487.2313.