"I dance on my terms."
Those words, spoken by an exotic dancer named Sterling (Kylie Rose), ring out late in From the Ruby Lounge, Theatre Berk's plunge into the on- and offstage drama of the title's strip club. It's a declaration that encapsulates Sterling's evolution, but it's also the credo of this transcendent work of art, which fiercely embraces the idea that stripping can be a feminist act.
From the Ruby Lounge exists in the uncanny realm between theater and adult entertainment. Audiences who come for the dancing may wonder why the show keeps getting interrupted by soulful conversations about work and love, while more demure playgoers may wonder how they ended up watching people cavorting to lyrics like, "My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard." The ideal viewer will relish it all and see the play for what it is: an ingenious provocation in which women inhabit their bodies and souls to the fullest extent.
Written by the cast, choreographer Rachael Singer, and directors Sarah Marie Andrews and Athena Aura Nova, the play begins with Sterling at a non-exotic dance audition. We see women with numbers pinned to their clothes trying out and being briskly rejected, a humiliating spectacle that leaves Sterling, who needs money to pay for her ailing mother's medication, devastated and demoralized.
Enter Bianca (Bryn Butler), a friend who dances at the Ruby Lounge and urges Sterling to apply. Sterling is hesitant, but Bianca persuasively preaches the gospel of exotic dancing, telling her that it's the rare world where women make more than men. She also dispels Sterling's fear of harassment from male clients. You'd have to worry about that at any job, Bianca reasons, and at this one, there's always a bouncer who's more than happy to defend you.
Sterling joins a team of "Rubies" that includes Diamynd (Maya Seidel), Riley (Taylor Jean Grady) and Mallory (Heidi Hunter), the matriarch of the group. Directors Andrews and Nova have said they wanted "to show sex workers as people," and accordingly, the play vividly sketches the lives of the characters off the pole, chronicling everything from Bianca's crush on Riley to the ongoing battle at the lounge to keep the toilet in the women's restroom working.
While the play is fascinated with the less than glamorous rituals of exotic dancing, it wants you to watch as an awestruck patron. That's easy to do when Seidel freezes on the pole and extends her leg seemingly into eternity or when Butler and Grady perform a supercharged BDSM routine that involves a collar, a pink leash and a riding crop. The cast's grace, athleticism and charisma leave you thinking that whatever you paid for a ticket, it wasn't enough.
That makes this a complicated production to watch. The play does everything in its power to make you feel like you're at an actual strip club. There's a bar inside the theater and you're even encouraged to tip the dancers by throwing dollar bills onto the stage (half of all the show's proceeds go to SWOP Behind Bars, a charity that supports incarcerated sex workers). The play's realism sometimes makes you feel like a guilty voyeur and forces you to ask yourself whether such a reaction is justifiable or just a side effect of living in a patriarchal and puritanical society.
Due to its 75-minute running time, From the Ruby Lounge doesn't smoothly close the curtain on all of its subplots. It offers something better than slick resolutions—a chance to witness the dedication, discipline and heartbreak behind the seductive personas projected onstage. The dances stay with you, but so do tender moments from the dressing room, like Mallory standing by Riley after she has a traumatic run-in with her abusive ex or Bianca telling Sterling about the surreal isolation she experiences as a stripper who is attracted to women.
The cast and crew have created a story that will challenge your assumptions about sex work and about yourself. Yet even when the play tests you, it's hard to feel anything other than grateful that it exists. From the Ruby Lounge is brash, intelligent and overpowering theater—and like Sterling, it dances on its own terms.
SEE IT: From the Ruby Lounge runs at the Shoe Box Theater, 2110 SE 10th Ave., theatreberk.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Sunday, through Sept. 7. $10-$20.