A brief history of Malta, burlesque style

The History of Malta Burlesque Show leaves Noel Tanti wanting more of the weird and wonderful seasonal variety shows put up by The Dazzle Troupe.

As The Clockwork Ensemble, Alex Spiteri-Gingell and Maria Pia Meli performed The Rosary Beats during Dazzle Troupe's History of Malta Burlesque Show. Photo by Stephen Buhagiar.
As The Clockwork Ensemble, Alex Spiteri-Gingell and Maria Pia Meli performed The Rosary Beats during Dazzle Troupe's History of Malta Burlesque Show. Photo by Stephen Buhagiar.

Last year, The Dazzle Troupe wrestled with the weird and the diabolical aboard a monster cruise. This time round they took Maltese history to task, giving their own hilarious interpretation of milestone events.

The story was rather straightforward: two aliens, sparkling in a manner that would have made Twilight's Edward Cullen swoon with envy, crash landed on Malta. The verdant couple, played with vim and vigour by Marie-Claire Pellegrini and Franco Rizzo, salvaged an old tape of key historical moments, which they played for the audience.

Fleur Escent (Veronica Stivala) and Guza t'Abbuza (Marta Vella) were the protagonists of a charming period piece involving social class bickering, cross-dressing, back-stabbing and Queen Victoria's Secret. The act toyed with the tired stereotype of Ingliza tal-pepe' versus il-Maltija hamalla but thankfully it veered away from that formula.

Instead, Stivala and Vella, who possess an incredible chemistry onstage, delivered a story in which the local woman turned out to be rather crafty and resourceful.

One can always trust Schlock Troupe to go out on a limb and push the envelope.

This time round it was anthropophagy (posh name for cannibalism), framed within a morality play performed in verse.

A self-righteous seraph (a suitably smug Peter Farrugia, recalling General Melchett in Blackadder) sought to discipline an insane La Valette (a gleefully infernal Bettina Borg Cardona) by exploiting a humble farmer (the remarkably gender-bending Teodor Reljic).

The script was bonkers, in a very clever way, betraying a sound understanding of comedy behind all the madness.

In fact, this edition of The Burlesque Show was characterised by an astoundingly high level of writing. Both acts by What's Their Names Theatre, one about St Paul's shipwreck and the other about Malta's independence, were bolstered by an incisive and witty script. Philip Leone Ganado, Nathan Brimmer, Yannick Massa and Joseph Zammit were flawless as they delivered a barrage of funny one-liners that had the audience in fits.

I believe that Zammit is one of the best local comedy actors you've never heard of.

Despite being in numerous productions he is still relatively unknown, which is a pity, because he has that rare gift: an innate sense of perfect comedic timing.

He transforms even the most predictable of characters into a barrel of laughs, as his cameo appearance as the Turkish Eurovision ambassador in Cikku l-Poplu's sketch, demonstrated.

Marie-Claire Camilleri hinted at a more modern form of burlesque by entertaining the audience to a striptease.

Starting off from the fat lady, making her way through a Great Siege and a World War, and ending up scantily clad in a nightclub, Camilleri gave a captivating view of the history of Malta like it was never experienced before.

Musician Alex Vella Gregory and singer Maria Pia Meli had two sketches, one about the nation's obsession with winning the Eurovision Song Contest and another about local politicians' poor fashion sense.

The satire was spot on: the songs were sharp and offensive, delivered with spadefuls of irony, demanding accountability in a loud and entertaining manner. Aristophanes would have been proud.

Meli also featured in Rosary Beats, one of the stand-out performances of the evening. Together with Dr Zicotron (Alex Spiteri-Gingell), she was The Clockwork Ensemble, a duo who recited parts of the rosary to a techno backing track.

Equipped with hand-held megaphones, reminiscent of the ones hooked up to electricity poles during Christmas and Holy Week, the two performers literally brought the house down as they transformed what many might consider a tedious exercise into a jubilant, upbeat event. It was pure genius.

The other stand-out acts were the three dance numbers performed by Dancebug Productions and Movie Dance Company.

My knowledge of dance is very limited; however I'd like to think that when something this magnificent crosses my path, I would recognise it as such. What Lynne Salomone-Reynaud, Dorian Mallia, Rebecca Gatt and Michaela Dimech did defied the laws of physics.

The elegance of their movements and the apparent weightlessness of their bodies, coupled with the overall pathos of the numbers, made everything seem surreal.

Finally, I think that Nicole Cuschieri, the brain, muscle and heart behind The Dazzle Troupe, deserves a mention.

In a theatrical scenario dominated by foreign ready-made scripts, it is refreshing to find someone who encourages local performers to dive into the deep end and come up with their own projects.

Opportunities to learn, grow and mature in the performing arts, not to mention proper feedback, are limited, and that is why platforms as the one provided by Cuschieri are very important. Which, incidentally, is also the reason why I was glad to notice that this event was supported by the Malta Arts Fund.

Well done to all.