In a sense, Peep! is a show which doesn’t need a critic. Up front, it concedes the point: it’s bad.
From the start, master of ceremonies Bucky Sidewinder, a guy who looks like a grown-up corpulent Eddie Munster in a tux, rags on the show (“It’s an all new Peep. Whoop-de-damn-do.”), the audience (“suckers”), and the, um, talent (“This next number should be a special treat for you. None of us are in it.”).
The problem is, he’s right. Peep isn’t one of those faux-bad-but-really-underneath-it’s-damn-good shows. At best, it’s a genuinely mediocre work. Ringmaster Lissa Brennan’s troupe have brought back a series of old jokes, comedy situations–and stereotypes. Unfortunately they haven’t brought back a lot of old characters to play them.
The initial premise for the series was intriguing: a vaudeville/burlesque troupe flash-frozen in 1937 unthaws in 2002 and starts doing the same old numbers again. With modern culture clearly outstripping most moral definitions from that period, time-warped skin-trade performers would likely have to substantially readjust their perceived boundary lines of propriety–conceivably, well beyond their comfort level.
The element of sexual naïvete could thus be improbably reintroduced, in a burlesque show of all places. A woman on stage could indulge in moves she believes to be risqué, not realizing they’re pedestrian now. Another could find a move she’d never make on stage in 1937 turns out to be the erotic minimum bid in 2002. Such cultural schisms could fuel some potentially volatile live theater.
Here, though, the name of the game is flimsy little characters in equally flimsy little comedy sketches. As it turns, these both are much more frequently displayed than the flimsy little costumes traditionally associated with the theater of the skin.
But I will confess it took a stronger soul than mine to resist the barrage of abysmal one-liners this crew dishes out. A “Reform School Girls” sketch devolved into a collection of hair jokes (What do you call a case of gross ignorance? 144 blondes!), which had the audience groaning, though not necessarily in sympathy. But Sidewinder’s gags still went on far too long. And if any show in this region needed a permanent rim shot provider, Peep does.
In any case, the brightest spots here are the musical ones. Regional percussionist and avant-garde showman Ken Ray Wilemon slummed through with seven minutes of sweetly ambient techno-voodoo jive. At full distortion, an optimistically named Hellion’s amplified harp would have fit in pretty well with John Cale and Moe Tucker back in the day, but poor miking lost most of her apparently suggestive lyrics.
Still, sketches like “Jack and Mildred Get Educated” revisit the underlying coercion of such 1950s staples as The Honeymooners, as an authoritative husband orders a bubble-brained wife to stay home and do housework instead of go to night school. Such a premise in these times elicits several responses. Amusement is usually not one of them.
Which makes Peep not much of a burlesque, not much of a theater piece and not that much of anything else. Instead, we see the puzzling spectacle of a group of more or less normally uptight 20-and-30somethings poorly faking decadence and jade. Far too cautiously, they tiptoe around the old unhallowed structures of public sexual performance; playing dress-up for a moment in harlots’ costumes, perhaps, but lacking the interest or desire to truly embody the thing itself. Such, we’re reminded, is the challenge an actor always faces. If they’re acting.
In the immoral words of Gunilla Knutson, take it off. Take it all off.