A Tale of Two Shows: on seeing Kinky Boots and Drunk Shakespeare in NYC


Ever since my soul and flesh slammed into New York City (which is another story involving a blizzard of the century), I have loved her fiercely. She a magical beast that you can lose yourself in and reinvent yourself as many times as you wish, so a visit with NYC never fails to make me giddy. I recently had the chance to spend a few days in New York City, and, against my usual modus operandi, I did almost no planning, which is sometimes the best kind of planning. The only thing on my must-do list was to see a Broadway show, because that is the one non-negotiable with any of my trips to NYC. I decided to let NYC plan the rest, and so I ended up attending two vastly different, but both masterful, shows on the same day: Kinky Books, a fully-realized musical production with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper playing in the gorgeously ornate Hirschfeld Theatre, and Drunk Shakespeare, a froliking kind-of interactive and improv happening involving a cast of 6 wearing their own street clothes that takes place in a small library on the 4th floor of a nondescript building. How the stars aligned for me to experience both is not the point, the point is that I was struck how both shows were expert examples of the absolute importance of theatre on both personal and social levels.

For the spectator, theatre allows us to indulge our imaginations and escape for a short while. The same is true of movies and books, of course, but there is something special about being transported merely through sets, costumes and actors. Kinky Boots is the quintessential Broadway musical experience. Stepping into a theatre is, for me, like stepping into another world. I never feel as disconnected (in a good way) from the outside world as I do when I’m sitting on that red velvet chair. It’s like my own personal magic carpet.

Theatre is storytelling at its heart and allows us to experience other times, places, and cultures that we may have not otherwise been, or will ever be, exposed to. By bearing witness to others’ triumphs and struggles and ways of life, we expand our world references and can increase our capacity to relate and empathize.  It can also help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Kinky Boots is set in the conservative town of Northampton, England, where our protagonist, Charlie, inherits his father’s failing shoe factory. Although the last thing Charlie wanted was to inherit his father’s business, he now feels loyal to the workers and responsible for keeping the factory running. The only problem is, how? Through circumstance, enter Lola, a black drag queen entertainer from London who challenges Charlie and the town to expand their minds and their world. Charlie and Lola team up to start manufacturing a new kinky boot of, as Lola says, “2 ½ feet of irresistible, tubular sex” instead of an outdated, stodgy men’s shoe.

The road to success is not easy for Lola or Charlie: Lola initially experiences physical and verbal assaults from one of the factory workers and Charlie splits with his fiancee, who can’t, bless her cold, corporate heart, figure out why Charlie wants to a) stay in Northampton and b) save his father’s factory. Everything rests on Charlie, Lola, and the workers having a new line of shoes ready in time for the a fashion show in Milan. But, while Milan is important to the story in that it does, indeed, save the shop, the real heart of the show beats around Charlie and Lola, and what we learn by watching them interact with each other and the town. It is through watching these different struggles and situations play out that theatre becomes relatable and teachable and, in the case of Kinky Boots, at times wonderfully witty and hilarious.

Peppered with fantastic music and lyrics by the iconic Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein, Kinky Boots challenges our thoughts about what love and self-love really means, having the courage to be true to ourselves, friendship, sacrifices, our sometimes soul-crushing fears, and ugly preconceived prejudices about strangers, and the real notion of what being a family means.

From the inspirational song “Take What You Got” about taking the risks worth taking to the hilarious “The Sex Is In the Heel” about the re-uh-vamping of Price & Co’s shoes to the tear-inducing “Soul of a Man” ballad co-sung by Charlie and Lola about their fathers, with whom they both had strained relationships, to the funny and adorable “History Of Wrong Guys” sung by Lauren, Charlie’s loyal, longtime friend/factory worker, upon realizing her long-heald crush on Charlie. (spoiler, of course they end up together) The showstopper, though, is the final song: a feel-good, motivational power ballad that finally busts the heart. “Raise You Up/Just Be” is a 6 minute plus booster shot of encouragement, self-acceptance, and inclusion that we all need right now. In fact, the cast breaks the ‘fourth wall’ and gets the audience on their feet to take part in the feel-good fun, eliciting my favorite of emotions, happy tears through laughter. And, yes, it is the bigoted and narrow-minded macho factory work who had previously given Lola (and Charlie) hell that unties the workers in the end to save the factory, having learned some necessary lessons along the way. This is the kind of show that is as entertaining as it is food for thought.

Since I was letting New York plan the day, I had not predetermined what I was going to do after Kinky Boots. Good thing, too. It was about 4:25 as I exited in my usual post-musical high, and I immediately knew I needed another hit of theatre. I quickly made my way through the crowd at Times Square towards the TKTS booth, which sells day off theatre tickets at 40-50 percent discounts. Though musicals are my weakness, I’m definitely not opposed to other theatre experiences, so I chose the off-Broadway Drunk Shakespeare at 8pm. And then New York, and theatre, get even more magical. I go to pay for the ticket and am told that it’s cash only for that particular show. My ticket is $36. “Oh no,” I say, crestfallen, “I only have 29 dollars on me.” The man looks, smiles and winks, saying, “That’s ok, I’ll make it work, babe.” Say what you want about New York City, it can deliver small miracles and mercies faster than lightning. Ticket in hand, I practically skip the 4 blocks down to Carmine’s (the touristy but just oh so fun pre-theatre Italian joint I first experienced in 1998). I secure a seat at the bar and pass the time with a glass of wine, food, and chatting with the bartender.

But back to another reason I believe in theatre: it’s ability to be absolutely contemporary in its content and be able to create what Brene Brown calls “collective effervescence”, best described as that warm-fuzzy feeling one gets by simply being part of a group experiencing something great, like a concert, or the second show I ended up seeing, Drunk Shakespeare. Maybe my standards aren’t as high as they should be, but I loved this show as soon I showed up to the address and the only signage was written in red paint on the wall on the first floor of the building: “Drunk Shakespeare” and an arrow pointing up. Two flights of stairs brings you to the “theatre”, which has a small gathering place/lobby with a bar. Behind a curtain is the performance space, a small theatre-in-the-round creation that holds maybe 75 people, made up to resemble a ‘library’ in that the walls are lined from floor to ceiling with books. I literally gasp at the adorableness of the space. Then I get handed a light shot of some kind of bourbon, and I again gush. To make a long story short, the show is called Drunk Shakespeare because it involves one member of the troupe, in full view of the audience as the show is starting, taking a few shots of tequila. They also choose one audience member to take one shot along with the actor, to verify that said actor is, in fact, drinking alcohol. Like I said, it’s an interactive experience, and a side-splitting hilarious one at that. This show, while loosely following the plot of Macbeth, does not (save for a few of the great original lines/soliloquies from the Bard himself) use the original language, but instead is largely improved and infused with (a lot) of tangential audience participation, contemporary rhetoric, cultural references and witty, on-point social commentary. This can also be a secondary aim of theatre as it was in Shakespeare’s time – to “hold the mirror up to nature” as he says – to show us who we are as individuals and as a collective society. Theatre, used in this way, is a tool of education, not just entertainment, and I love the ‘escape’ of a Broadway musical as much as I cherish a lush, immersive experience such as Drunk Shakespeare.

It’s been proven by studies from the University of Arkansas that live theatre increases a person’s social perspectives, tolerance and vocabulary! So the next time you’re scrambling for a gift idea, try grabbing a couple of seats at a local production of anything! I promise you won’t regret it! Theatre can make us a happier, more peaceful, and smarter society!

5 Reasons to Drop Everything and Take Tango lessons in Buenos Aires (August 2015)

12540667_10153188890541682_6245849521189604133_n5 Reasons To Drop Everything and Go Take Tango Lessons in Buenos Aires

There are only two reasons a reasonably sane person would book an international trip to a foreign city where they don’t speak the language and know no one in order to spend a eight days studying and practicing a dance they have never even tried. A woman in love, or a woman recently out of love. I’ll leave it to you to guess which one I was. Let me rewind…

Late July in Austin, Texas. It’s oppressively hot and I’ve spent the past 6 months, yet again, trying to work against timing, against my instincts, and being the damned butterfly fluttering around like a lunatic, instead of being the still flower. And because timing always (always) wins, I finally took a step back and exhaled until my lungs were blissfully empty and cried until my eyes were clear.

A couple of days later, I’m reading about a package trip to Buenos Aires (which translates to “Good Air”) that is billed as a mash up of a couple of ‘self-help’ seminars and a few private tango lessons. Although I have done enough self-help work for a couple of lifetimes, the details of the trip are intriguing. And the timing is perfect (irony of ironies) – I would return with 24 hours to rest before fall semester began. For a myriad of reasons, I knew I needed to get the hell out of dodge, and I gleefully accepted this little slice of divine manifestation with zeal. I knew without a doubt this was the perfect kind of trip at the perfect time.

Problem #1: I don’t speak Spanish. Oh well. When in doubt, point at the menu, right?

Problem #2: I don’t know the first thing about tango. But, that’s what the classes are for, right?

A mere sixteen days later I’m boarding a 10 hour flight from Atlanta with a newly purchased Lonely Planet guide in hand. My heart is still heavy, but my head is ready for the adventure, even if only for the distraction for the next 10 days.

And then, right on cue, I meet Alejandro, the tango teacher. *

*spoiler alert: nothing happens, but keep reading.

And so, in no particular order, I present five reasons why you should drop everything and take tango lessons in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of the dance an inspiration for a short-lived Broadway musical in the mid-nineties called Forever Tango.

  1. “Tango es sexual”

No translation needed.

I’m sitting in a very old apartment in Buenos Aires surrounded by portenos (the term for people who are from Buenos Aires), foreigners and a few other Americans. We’re here to talk about the connection between tango and sex, though I’m wondering why a whole seminar is needed. To me, the connection is perfectly obvious. Tango can be a way to have very real, safe physical contact with another person whose name you may not even know. The dance is a fleeting, but no less real, moment of satisfaction. The close embrace of the tango demands flesh on flesh contact brings you back to your body and the supreme simplicity of connection without words.

Make no mistake, tango is sexual, sensual, and brings every emotion to the surface. It is not danced with the feet, but with the heart. Twenty minutes into my first tango lesson, I realize I’ve developed a crush on Alejandro. Or, more precisely, I’ve developed a crush on the whole process, the dance, and life again.

  1. Tango is an exercise in patience

“Wait…” Alejandro must have said this to me a hundred times, mid-step, as I tried to figure out where he was going to lead me before he had finished the step. “Don’t be in a rush, Aimee. Just be in the step.” I bust out laughing. “Oh, Ale, you don’t know who you’re saying that to.”

But his point is dead accurate about tango and life. The dance is made up of two individuals, and cannot be rushed by either partner, or everyone will lose their balance. Having spent much of the past decade in a swirl of “rushing” to find the guy, literally rushing from job to job, or spontaneously moving cross country a few times, I have spent  the past couple of years trying to slow the hell down. “There is a step between the step'” says Alejandro, “don’t forget.”

Right then it clicked. I had been thinking of tango in terms of step 1, step 2, an abrupt jump from point A to B kinda thing, but tango, like life, demands more graceful, fluid motions. Tango also depends on using this patience to suspend any notions of anticipations, or better yet, get rid of anticipation altogether. Any time I tried to anticipate where Alejandro was going to lead me next, he never failed to feel the subtle shift in my weight. “Do you know where I’m going,” he smiled. “…no. I was trying to guess.” He nodded. “Exactly. Don’t do that. Don’t try to anticipate. Just be with me in the moment, and let me show you.”

Anything you say, Ale. Anything. You. Say.

We start dancing again, and this time, I don’t concentrate on the steps, but instead, think about gliding, wave-like, through the dance, and resign myself to the unknown. I think about being, not only in the moment, but in each second. Somewhere mid-song, Alejandro starts humming, and then singing along (in Spanish) to the passionate, mesmerizingly soulful song in Spanish, and suddenly I’m dizzy and wondering what kind of favor I did in a past life to deserve to live through this completely surreal moment.

The song ends. Damnit. “Eso, Aimee! Muy Bien!” he beams.

Yes, I think. Everything is muy bien. Everything is going to be muy bien. For the first time in a long while, I feel okay with being patient and living in the emotional quicksand known as the “unknown”, as it pertains to love. I am, and I think my family would attest, fairly patient and flexible when it comes to life in general, but not when it comes to love (or food). I’ve longed for a relationship for a long time, and become increasingly riddled with anxiety as the calendar pages continue to fade away. But tango has reminded me to slow the hell down and enjoy the ride a bit more.

  1. “Tango is improvisation”

Says Alejandro. “You mean, there’s not a routine,” I blanch. He firmly shakes his head. “There are a few basic steps, yes, but the dance is improvised.” It’s my first lesson, and I’m suddenly very aware that in about 20 seconds I’m going to be on my feet in my newly purchased tango shoes and torso to torso with this very handsome Argentine whose accent is to die for trying to learn a dance I’ve never done in my life.

My comfort zone has long since been left behind, but the swirling culmination of the experience of a new country, new language (which I don’t speak) and learning a new dance has me a bit flustered and I’m feeling a bit queasy. But then I remember the first rule of improv comedy: say yes to anything that is thrown at you, and do something with it. So, vamos. Life is, is it not, one long improvisation?

Alejandro first plays a few different pieces of tango music, from the 20’s, the 50’s and the 60’s, and while all of the music is beautiful and haunting. Tango is not just a music. It’s a feeling and a way of approaching life.

I think back to my first few hours in Buenos Aires. Walking for the first time down Defensia, I was startled when I stepped upon a piece of sidewalk that was no longer rooted down, and had to regain my balance mid-stride. Not two minutes later, the same thing happened. This time. I was annoyed. The third time it happened, I laughed. I get it, I thought, I just have to go with it.

A similar thing happened later in the week when I approached a subway station, only to find that service on that line had been suspended. The pre-tango Aimee would have done some serious brooding, but the post-tango Aimee just laughed, sashayed herself to the next subway line a few blocks away, and found a new route home.

The first hour-long lesson passes in a blur. Before I know it, it’s time to go, and I’m already looking forward to tomorrow’s lesson. Alejandro and I exchange a goodbye kiss on the cheek (cultural thing), and I float out of the studio to the subway.

By the time I resurface out of the subway at Plaza de Mayo, I no longer feel like the same person who boarded the plane three days ago. I hum to myself as I bound up the stairs into the night; I smile at everyone I pass. I feel more myself than I have in months. The sun has set and the air is crisp and sweet. The first thing I see is the Casa Rosada bathed in a warm, pink and utterly romantic glow. I stop dead in my tracks at the absolute perfection of the moment. So I did the only natural thing possible when you’ve just taken tango lessons in Buenos Aires and find yourself standing at Eva Peron’s old abode at twilight. I slung my satin tango shoe bag over my shoulder, threw my arms open, and sang “Hello, Buenos Aires” (from the musical Evita) while improv dancing and skipping over and around the tons of huge, gaping holes in the sidewalk.

  1. Tango is about balance

One of the most interesting things about tango is the seemingly drastic difference between the music/lyrics and the dance. While the music is searingly passionate and often includes bitter, violent lyrics, the dance is smooth, sexy, and, I can attest, can instantly put a smile on your face.

As Alejandro is addressing posture during my second lesson, he says “Tango is about connecting with another person, while still maintaining your own balance. If you don’t connect with the other person, the dance won’t work. If you don’t maintain your own balance, the dance won’t work.”

I know, right? Talk about a metaphor. And there’s more:

“When two people are truly connected, dancing together, there is no ‘follower’ or ‘leader’, but two people sharing the responsibility of the dance,” says Ale.

I feel a familiar pre-cry pang welling up in that back of my throat. That’s all I’m looking for, Ale, I wanted to wail. Mercifully, a second later he turned on the music, and two seconds later, he was teaching me how to pivot, and, just like that, I was ricocheted from despair back to joy in, literally, a single step.

By the end of the third lesson, I was hooked. I felt re-connected to myself, and had fallen in love with life again. Ok, so having a seriously good-looking Argentinian teacher and going for a glass of Malbec and tiramisu after each lesson didn’t hurt. In the end, it wasn’t about learning a dance, it was bringing some joy and adventure to my life, and that was worth every peso.