Inside the Le Cirque phenomenon

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October 13, 2003 // UPDATED 11:05 am - April 30, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

'Girls Gone Wild' isn't the only place amateurs take some of it off...but here, there's charm

In just the few weeks that it's been open, the hole-in-the-wall that is Le Cirque Rouge de Gus has certainly made a name for itself. It's been mentioned in several publications around town and has quickly become a to-do among the artsy, theater crowd set -- even an alternative venue for grooms-to-be who aren't into straight-up strip joints.

What's all the fuss about? What's a Le Cirque show actually like?

In a way, the adage is true -- you really have to experience it for yourself. The lineup varies each evening; even as the drum rolls, Amy Buchanan, the emcee and owner, seems a bit uncertain that the next "brilliant" and "beloved" performer will actually emerge from the dressing room and take the small stage.

Rather than seeming unprofessional, however, this uncertainty lends a sense of mystery to the evening, along with the notion that perfection need not be the desired state -- crucial elements of the venue's charm.

Performances are sure to include a few balladeers and a stripper -- er, striptease -- artiste, or two. Yet, will smooth, sleight-of-hand master Theodore the Magician be there to thrill the crowd with charmed cards and silver coat hangers? Will the strip artiste stick with small sequinned nipple covers or opt for old-fashioned feather fans? Stay tuned.

While it is billed as burlesque, flashing flesh doesn't seem to be a big part of this variety show. Of the six or so charismatic performers who woo the men and women of the roughly 40-person audience, just one, Jean Bardot (imagine a thinner Bettie Page, a '50s pin-up), shows some serious skin -- but, still, less than you'd see in an R-rated movie.

In-your-face sexuality is available in several other Downtown shops and clubs. Here, it's about sensuality, romance and whimsy.

One minute, elegant bombshell Karen Paurus, who recently appeared in "Thirty Days in Frogtown" at Downtown's Pantages Theater, is pounding out an angst-ridden tune on the piano, "Lilac Wine," by the late modern rocker Jeff Buckley. The next performer, Morton, gently strums his guitar and gazes moon-eyed somewhere above the audience while softly crooning and occasionally hooting (yes, like an owl) to an old-time tune (somehow involving an owl).

Paurus and Morton are typical of the show's gender roles -- men can take the stage, but they are clearly cast as

minstrels, expected to pay homage to the divas in their midst. As Jaeneen sings "He's Just a Gigolo" the eyes of the mute gentleman stage-left pop out at just the right moment -- simultaneously, he flashes cards to the audience about his life as Jaeneen's professional boy toy. The men on bass and glitter-gold drumset manage to keep the beat despite their dropping jaws.

The audience, mostly 30-45 years old and comprised equally of men and women, seems to appreciate these gender roles. Men can take in the pleasantries guilt-free while women are nearly deified by proxy. It's also difficult to cast a warning eye to the gartered and corseted waitress approaching your partner with his or her beer as she compliments your form-fitting sweater in a woman-to-woman manner -- and jokes that maybe she'll see you on stage later.

At the end of the pros' performances, audience members are invited to enter the dressing room to be transformed from voyeurs into chanteuses. You never know how many, if any, will take up the cadre on their offer. Sometimes the audience is mostly couples and the amateur slot goes empty; on other nights there are bachelor party groups and bands of young women who practically push one another on-stage.

On one night, a Rubensesque woman strutted about in Cirque-issued skivvies. On another, college-age gamines shocked a few audience members with their, um, openness.

At first, it's hard to believe strangers would shimmy their stuff in a small theater-type venue where some architectural elements are yet to be finished in the club's red, orange and white palette. However, the seeming imperfections of the place, including the real-ness of the stars -- the women reveling in their skin are actually normal-sized -- create an atmosphere where normal is beautiful.

Le Circue De Rouge de Gus, 331 2nd Ave. N., is open Thursdays-Saturdays, show starts around 10 p.m. and ends when it ends. Entrance is $10.