Later this month, Firehouse Theatre will combine burlesque, Dolores Umbridge, sideshow acts, Jeffrey Dahmer, and improv games to bring fans and those with a passion for the weird and unusual with their latest production, Villains of Vaudeville by River City Vaudeville. Ray Bullock, Founder of River City Vaudeville, wishes to bring back the old style of vaudeville and promote artists and styles of performance that may seem underground in the Richmond community.
Mixing stand-up comedy, singing, burlesque, improv, and sideshow performance, vaudeville is the multi-faceted performance art of the 19th century. And while many associate vaudevilles with a naughty aspect due to the burlesque, Bullock said that vaudeville is a dying art that needed something to bring it to audiences’ attention again.
“It’s going to be a little cheeky. It’s going to be a little naughty. But it’s also going to be just fun,” said Bullock. However, Bullock emphasized the tasteful balance of naughty and cheeky with the art itself. “You are going to enjoy it because it’s not going to be the pushing of the edge so you’re off-put. It’s not going to be the uncomfortable pushing of the edge.”
Bullock, a Richmond native, has been involved in the performance scene for the last 22 years, beginning with standup comedy. After running the 9:55 Club, and having several friends who were involved with circus art, comedy, and more, Bullock realized he wanted to show Richmond the alternative performance art forms that were not so common.
“These things need to come together because there’s so much talent, it’s kind of separated. So I thought, ‘Why not bring back old school vaudeville?’ which all of those things are in it.”
Thus, River City Vaudeville, with its first official season, hit the Richmond theatre scene.
But how do villains play a role in vaudeville? With The Devil himself hosting and Dolores Umbridge and Doctor Horrible acting as stagehands (or “chaos control”), audiences can expect a variety of well-known characters doing uncharacteristic acts. Maleficent and Norman Bates will both be doing musical numbers. Audiences can expect to see The Joker doing standup comedy. Catch Elizabeth Bathory doing burlesque. Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and David Berkowitz all perform improv games. And while many audiences might find these acts lack in taste, Bullock wished to reassure audiences that they’re meant to be cheeky.
“The way I look at it, if you’re going to use people [who] did the most horrific, deplorable, awful things known to man, they deserve to be made fun of,” he said. The irony of evil characters, both real and fictional, hosting an entire evening of comedy and performance is not lost in translation.
The performance itself won’t be the only spectacle. House music will be provided by Glitterally Can’t Even, a Ke$ha pop-punk cover band. A raffle to support the actors will include several prizes, including the grand prize of a Joker print signed by Mark Hamill. It is without saying that an audience member of any fan-base will find their niche at this event.
Bullock’s infectious excitement about vaudeville and theatre would make anyone want to go out and see an act of any sort. “I don’t think people realize how much of [vaudeville] we have here in Richmond,” he said. Although vaudeville may seem like crossing too many comfort lines for modern audiences, Bullock was reassuring. “I think Richmond needs that aspect back again because I think, with all the other communities that are combined, it can bring back that pushing the envelope, but still be in a respectful way.”
Above all, Bullock wished to emphasize going out and supporting all forms of live art. “I would love it if people just go out and hunt out live performance. You have great big theatre companies in town. They’re doing fantastic things. You have the smaller underground folks that are doing amazing things,” he said. “You’ve got the burlesque shows, you’ve got the cabaret shows, improv, standup, all of that is right here.”
Even if it isn’t vaudeville strictly, Bullock wished to expose audiences, young and old, to all forms of art. “I would love it for someone who is discovering the world of performance outside of their schools and all of that to see the wide variety of it. I want them to know that you can go out there and you can be a sword swallower, you can be a juggler, you can be an improv person, you can be a standup person, you can be a burlesquer.”
You can catch Villains of Vaudeville Jan. 28 at 7 pm at Firehouse Theatre. $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Ticket information can be found here.