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In another original reimagining, The New Theatre Project makes a respectful and inquisitve foray into the world of female sex workers in The Dance of the Seven Veils, written by company member Amanda Lyn Jungquist and directed by Artistic Director Keith Paul Medelis. A blend of first-person narrative, music, and dance, the production presents accounts of prostitutes and strippers culled from real-life sources, giving an emotionally wringing — but ultimately fair and unvarnished — voice to this societally shunned profession.

Jungquist’s sources include the text of Salome, a piece by open-source playwright Charles L. Mee, as well as numerous other online and social networking resources, some of which led to follow-up correspondence or interviews. Accordingly, the piece does betray an extensively researched feel at times; the pressure to be inclusive, to be exhaustive, sometimes manifests in heftily vague or meandering narration. The play functions as a triptych: each of three protagonists is billed as “Woman,” and three stories are told in succession, at times different and the same. One details the ongoing web of lies she maintains to keep her work separate from her regular life, whereas another describes overcoming verbal abuse from a client. Yet each Woman discusses her reasons for taking up sex work, each describes her first encounter, each reveals one or more instances in which she suffered physically or emotionally; moreover, each speaks frankly about the stigma of her profession and how it has changed her. This is probably the most pervasive and certainly the most personal theme of the production: that turning a basic human need into a business transaction, in addition to risking a permanent societal black mark, may irrevocably change a woman’s sense of femininity, her self-perception, her very identity.

Medelis makes the bold choice to have the actors mill around the performance space prior to the show; the effect lets the audience see them as human, no more or less of a person than when they assume their marginalized and often protectively secret characters. He is also credited with the production design, which includes the performers operating dimmer switches onstage to progress the scant lighting design; there is no behind the scenes in this revealing show. In the center of the circular, rose-adorned performing space is a floor-to-ceiling pole, with which each Woman interacts as part of her performance. The three distinct parts take on different tones, fueled by different music and accompanying choreography by Ben Stange, who also designed the risqué but tasteful all-black costumes. Jungquist’s balletic precision recalls an innocent practice session at the barre, which parallels the conception of her character (a former amateur dancer) that her body serves as an athletic object, almost separate from herself. Unfortunately, the evident disconnect starts to backfire in a performance that puts up walls even as the character recognizes the barriers to romantic love that she has erected. In contrast, the aggressive tango-like steps of Maria Thomas’s character complement her ferocity of assertion; her long and directed stares into the audience mere feet away insist that her work does not cause her shame, nor should it. Yet this Woman seems to fall even harder, as the spiraling consequences of her drug and alcohol abuse lead to far greater transgressions against her, which play out like hideous foregone conclusions.

The final Woman combats an understandably dispirited viewer with the yogic exuberance of Linda Rabin Hammell: her former stripper character is quirky, proud, and comfortable detailing her foray from degrading divorce to liberating sex work and the enduring partnership she formed with a fellow dancer. Especially in light of what comes before it, an encounter with a sex worker genuinely empowered and better off for her work is the most surprising tale of all, even though Hammell’s Woman is no more immune to tragedy than the others. Notably, hers is also the only character who spends any appreciable amount of time dancing with the pole in the expected way. Across all three scenes, Medelis gives the pole the reverence of a sacred object, assigning meaning to when the characters engage and disconnect with it; the game is largely effective, although it can begin to seem that the pole earns more attention than is warranted.

Individually, these three portrayals of Woman feel honest and not sensationalized; together, they don’t pretend to be fully representative of all sex workers, but they do form an unspoken community. As each Woman has her turn, the other two watch from a close distance with nothing but recognition and openness on their faces, which helps the viewer digest how deeply these themes run among those in the profession. The performers also chime in with live musical accompaniment during and between scenes to supplement the recorded soundtrack, playing alone and together in a truly eclectic mix of tunes. In all, Seven Veils is at worst an inconsistent production, but the moments that work are startlingly affecting, and the play’s scant running time of just over an hour invites viewers with even a little curiosity about this vilified profession to come and listen.


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