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Naked Rebellion

“No nipples and no pink,” said Tiffany over the phone, explaining how even the boundary-bending Vixen Kabarett created by students at the normally staid Chapman University in Orange County has its boundaries.

“Most of our budget went to pasties,” Tiffany added.

Speaking in exuberant, Valley-girl cadences, Tiffany, a senior, also said that their plan was eventually to bring the act to the Roxy. Playing once per semester for the past three years, the politically charged, erotic dance show — a cross between Pussycat Dolls Live and A Clockwork Orange — had been packing in audiences for late-night performances at the university’s Memorial Hall.

Vixens doing cabaret? Viva La Revolucíon!
(Photo by Tiffany Rose Warch)

“We’re making a revolution,” exults Tiffany, who grew up in Anaheim. Tiffany (who’s not in the show) wrote up a press release explaining how the show is trying to help people respect themselves by knocking down oppressive media stereotypes of what beauty should look like. The show had no problem drawing a crowd from a combination of word-of-mouth advertising and MySpace. Meanwhile, Tiffany says that her mom — “one of the original O.C. punks” — has been “totally supportive,” attending every show.

Standing in line on the steps outside the theater, a woman, heavy on the makeup, squeaks, “I’m scared. Have you been to one of these before?”

“Uh-huh. They’re fun,” replies her friend.

Portraits of the university’s deans and presidents-of-yore adorn the inner lobby. In a floral dress, risqué around the cleavage, Tiffany works the box-office table. She sees me and introduces me to her mom, who looks just like her. Inside the theater, there’s a festive air of anticipation. Some spectators look down from a gallery, but most of the crowd fills in the lower sanctum.

The lights come up on a couch draped in a white sheet. A woman in bra and shorts smokes, or appears to smoke, a hash pipe.

“Ohmygod!” I hear behind me. “That’s Melanie! She works in admissions!”

Video images project Bosch-like sketches of Hades, modern buildings in flames, and a nuclear-bomb detonation. TV clips from public-service videos from the ’50s — Reefer Madness-like — are accompanied by a soundtrack that includes a variation on the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Martin Luther King intoning “Thank God almighty I’m free at last” and Gwen Stefani’s “What Are You Waiting For?”

The selections complement a parade of about two dozen actor-dancers — three or four men at the most — flaunting large bodies, svelte bodies, glittered bodies costumed in silks and shrouds, bodies stripping, pole dancing, striking fetishistic poses, snapping their heads and hips in unison to tribal drumming, flinging back hair, leering at the screaming audience. The act is defiant and betrays not a hint of self-consciousness. I kept thinking of what the ghosts of those dead presidents painted in the lobby would think of this.

The performance ends around midnight, and the 23-year-old creator, Josh McKaine, lounges on the same couch that opened the show, while I sit in a folding chair. McKaine is a thin man in tight jeans, still sweat-drenched in an unbuttoned shirt. He claims not to be a choreographer. “I’m a director who moves people around.”

He’s been in theater since he was 2, and was also a Rotary Youth ambassador in India when the United States invaded Iraq. “I had to defend America,” he says, but he’s not anymore.

“We have nothing to look forward to. Most of us in this show are educated, poor and facing crappy jobs with no health care and no pensions. We’ve been robbed.”

Vixen Kabarett started as McKaine’s solo show, part of a lip-synching contest for campus sororities and fraternities. With echoes of Little Miss Sunshine, the judges gave McKaine a zero score for “inappropriate behavior.”

Forty percent of Chapman students are gay, says McKaine, citing a recent survey by the campus’ Queer Straight Alliance. “I know it’s true because I’ve tried to fuck all of them.”

Tiffany points out that the administration prohibited the show’s poster because it glorified drug use. The show itself, however, was not banned, and the administration did contribute its 1,200-seat theater, semester after semester, without charge, throwing in a public-safety contingent as well.

McKaine’s mood may have been particularly soured by the death of a friend serving in Iraq the prior month, and by the culture’s war against the human body in general. “Bodies can be blown up on cable, but show a nipple, and the station loses a license.”

A blond dancer who prefers to remain anonymous — a 25-year-old Chapman graduate who lived for a year in New York and has returned to the O.C. to work for Planned Parenthood — sidles up to McKaine and drapes one arm around him. She was wearing only underwear and pasties.

“I had liberal parents,” she says. “My mom started a sex-education class for the sixth grade. My house was very naked, so I’ve always been comfortable with my body, and showing it off. Now I’m a crazy feminist...” she quips. To show their power, some people start wars; others take off their clothes and dance.