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Gorilla Tango

Is too much skin risking a theater’s reputation?

Photographer: Greg Inda
A Nude Hope

Remember Benedick and Beatrice, the sparring protagonists of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy Much Ado About Nothing? While the Elizabethan playwright never imagined them trading barbs clad only in a Speedo and a bikini respectively, Gorilla Tango Theatre did, in a production that debuted in July and plays Thursdays through August 30. It’s part of a current lineup that increasingly has eyebrows raising and jaws dropping over fare such as UnderPants Improv, Fellowship of the Boobs, SuperBoobs and Holy Bouncing Boobies: A Batman Burlesque (the latter opening in August at its new Skokie location). “The burlesque stuff, the Bikini Shakespeare, that’s all basically the hook,” says founder and CEO Dan Abbate. “People then come in to check it out and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is actually a really good show.’ ” Hmm, sounds like a booby trap to us.

Gorilla Tango isn’t your typical storefront theater. There is no artistic director pursuing a single-minded vision. Rather, it’s a for-profit venue that opened in 2006 with a two-pronged approach to success: proprietary shows created by the GTT team and productions brought to it by outside producers who guarantee the theater a minimum amount of revenue from ticket sales. Between in- and out-of-house fare, the theater shows between 100 and 150 original productions annually, including serious theatrical work, sketch, stand-up and improv.

In fall of 2010, a show appeared on their calendar called Boobs and Goombas: A Super Mario Brothers Burlesque, featuring an all-female cast. Based on the classic video game, it finds Mario and Luigi getting into naughty misadventures with their enemies while tracking down the Princess. The more “coins” the audience brings, the more revealing the show gets. It was an instant success and claims bachelorettes, couples and gay men among its devotees. “I would’ve been surprised if it wasn’t a hit,” says Abbate, who cocreated Geek Girl Burlesque (now Gorilla Tango Burlesque) with wife Kelly Williams and executive producer Katie Johnston-Smith. “Boobs and Goombas was really a combination of a fun idea and then also kind of meeting the requirements of what has done well in the past.”

Other pop-culture parodies with a high nerd quotient followed, including striptease versions of Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, the Power Rangers and Indiana Jones. In each production, tongue is planted firmly in cheek. In A Nude Hope: A Star Wars Burlesque, for example, a tassel-twirling C-3PO strips to “Car Wash” while Han Solo takes out nemesis Greedo with the cheeky line, “Guess I shot first.” Bikini Shakespeare, on the other hand, isn’t so lucky. Because Much Ado doesn’t have nerd recognition (at least in this century), it simply plays as a frantic tangle of iambic pentamer featuring hot women as well as men in Speedos. We can’t imagine UnderPants Improv faring any better.

With more than a half dozen naughty shows happening and more in the works, enough might be enough. What’s next, we wonder, To Rome With Lust, a Woody Allen Burlesque? We hope not, but it’s worth considering whether the Gorilla Tango brand is on the verge of becoming permanently associated with striptease fare (just read the Yelp reviews). Abbate doesn’t think so. “As people demand different things, we’re gonna change with it,” he says. “Everyone might be into the McRib, but once the McRib goes away, they’ll be into something else.”

Bikini Shakespeare plays Thursday 2 at Gorilla Tango Theatre.

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