Discovering a New Normal: Ruby Red Burlesque’s Liberation of Oz’s Traditional Characters

The original 1939 Wizard of Oz film told the story of a young girl Dorothy who found herself in the magical land on a journey to somehow return home. On a sub-textual level, this meant a return to the status quo typical of women of the era, as when she wakes up she is surrounded by the men in her life: her father and potential suitors. The independence she experienced in Oz was a one-time deal. The ending shows the kind of woman Dorothy is supposed to be; meek, chaste and obedient, never to run off like that again.

It is safe to say that Ruby Red Burlesque’s reimagining at the Randolph Theatre last week does not follow this line of gender politics, instead turning it on its head for the modern era.

In this version, Dorothy is a black woman who begins the play meek and shy. Most importantly, she does not fit the archetypal beauty standards of the 30’s, that being white and thin. The framework of the Oz story as a coming of age one still applies in the burlesque performance, but it is one that comes with almost eighty years of social progress in regards to sexuality and gender.

By play’s end Dorothy is in full control of her own sexuality, she’s confident and unapologetic in getting what she wants. In short, she wouldn’t take shit from anybody. This line of thought is bolstered by the production’s original song that plays during her sexual awakening with lyrics of self-love in regards to both body and mind. Ruby Red’s reinterpretation doesn’t begin and end with Dorothy, though. The reversals are endless.

Here, Glinda is a similarly unapologetic androgynous man who essentially serves as the host of the show. The Tin Man becomes the Iron Maiden, the Cowardly Lion becomes the Lioness, and the Scarecrow becomes the reanimated Rag Doll. Even the Wicked Witch eschews the traditional villain role, instead helping Dorothy gain the confidence needed for self-love. That could be read as the pair of women disregarding antagonism towards each other, instead finding kinship.
The most interesting reversal seems to be the complete lack of the ‘return home’ aspect of the narrative. When Dorothy finds herself in Oz, it is accepted as the wondrous land it is, and everyone is resolutely comfortable with that. The entire reason for the journey to the Emerald City is that the city here is a highly exclusive club run by the Wizard. Dorothy’s journey in Ruby Red’s Oz isn’t one of a return to normalcy, instead it’s one of discovering a new normal.

There is one brief scene where the two versions align. When Dorothy and her friends decide to pass through the poppy fields they pass out. In the film, Glinda awakens them by making it snow, alluding to the poppy as opium and the snow as cocaine. The play makes the opium reference directly, but instead of snow-as-cocaine Glinda puts on a performance of ‘It’s Raining Men’ that does the job just fine.

Backed by a number of excellently choreographed dances, Ruby Red’s vision of Oz manages to provide an overtly sexual, brash and proud depiction of sexuality of all kinds in a clever flip of the subtle traditional subtext of the original film.

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