Last Saturday night, I went to Seven Saints to see Carnivàle Debauche’s latest extravaganza. When I arrived at 8 p.m., I was the last person to step into the line and the last to enter Seven Saint’s outdoor beer garden. Luckily I had purchased my tickets ahead of time because the show was sold out with over 130 enthusiastic fans attending. Every seat was already taken, but that’s not a big deal, the sightlines on the left were much better. Two and a half hours later, I left with a big grin on my face and a smile in my mind because I had just witnessed the real Champaign-Urbana, the one that’s not so visible at the bars and restaurants, the one that’s hidden from view at grocery stores and shopping centers, the one that only comes out on full moon nights.

Carnivàle Debauche is already a Chambana institution. Formed in 2010, this evolving troupe of very talented burlesque performers have put on at least 16 shows and I have missed every single one of them. Why? Sheer stupidity and arrogance on my part. I’ve seen burlesque shows in Chicago, Milwaukee, Santa Monica, New York City, Berlin, and Prague. I’ve attended decades of drag shows all over the world. What could a little local band of misfits do that would impress me? The answer was a lot. A whole lot.

Those who were there on Saturday night know. For those of you who missed out, read on and you’ll see what you missed.

Burlesque has a storied history and the meaning of the word has changed over the ages. Usually a mash-up of vaudeville variety shows and the classic striptease, burlesque suddenly turned feminist in the 1990s when Annie Sprinkle and her friends morphed from sex workers to performance artists and put on very subversive shows in New York’s Lower East Side (I was there and have pictures to prove it). Burlesque has evolved into showcasing all body types and gender identities. This diverse and all-inclusive attitude is also very much embraced by Carnivàle Debauche.

Saturday night’s show was Carnivàle Debauche’s second “Nerdlesque” show. Apparently the first one in 2019 at Guido’s Bar & Grill was a hit, so a sequel was in order. Filled with obscure sci-fi and comic con references that went right over my head, this elaborately staged and costumed show was a showcase of nerdy and sexy delights that made the crowd go wild.

Carnivàle Debauche is not a professional burlesque troupe (in my opinion) and that is exactly its charm. I’ve been on stage before in several theater productions and I know first-hand what a scary proposition that is — even with clothes on. Now imagine yourself doing the same in your underwear and now you know just how brave these performers are.

Fortunately, Carnivàle Debauche has a huge loyal following. This Saturday night audience was a genuine tight-knit community at its most supportive. Every performer was enthusiastically rewarded with whoops and ­hollers of encouragement, followed by vigorous applause at the end. Even a minor fire incident that didn’t go exactly as planned got a standing ovation. Oh yes, fire — there was a lot of it on this night and multiple performers used very dangerous props that scared the shit out of me.

In fact, it was the audience response that elevated this Carnivàle Debauche show to another level. At professional burlesque shows, the audiences are usually polite, sometimes roused when wowed by a specific act. But at this show, it seemed like you were among family. These performers are your neighbors down the street, your co-workers, your teachers, administrators, social workers, computer techies, artists and more. Sure they also happen to be exhibitionists, but don’t we all have at least a little bit of exhibitionism in us every time we venture out into the world (if you really want to be honest with yourself)? Perhaps what I experienced on Saturday night was less of a “show,” but rather a gathering, a party, or better yet, a family celebration for fellow freaks, weirdos, nerds, geeks, and dorks — in other words, the best kind of people in all of Champaign-Urbana. Carnivàle Debauche gave all of us permission to come out of the closet on that night and we all enthusiastically accepted the invitation.

Structurally, the show was presented in three acts with short 15-minute pauses in between each act. As the evening went on, each act built on the previous act and every performance topped the previous performance as the evening rose to its ultimate climax. Either this was a really smart creative direction or each sip of my beer got me more excited. Probably both.

Photo by Jeff Putney.

The evening opened with Carnie Barker Steve doing his master of ceremonies routine. Dressed down in a sci-fi spoof T-shirt, he was the polar opposite of the Joel Grey emcee character from Cabaret — quite appropriate for a “Nerdlesque” event.

A  pole dancer in a mask, black tank top and shorts, and black kneepads handing off a toy of Baby Yoda to a stage hand. Photo by Jeff Putney.Pink Diamond with Grogu. Photo by Jeff Putney.
A woman in a white tank top, khaki shorts, and black platform heels in a sexy pose pointing toy guns at the audience. Photo by Jeff Putney.Lady Ly as Lara Croft. Photo by Jeff Putney.

Act I proceeded with performers from Defy Gravity, our very own local pole dancing studio. Pole dancing at an outdoor beer garden without a roof? Yep, they did it with their own gravity defying temporary pole installation. I was impressed.

A woman with dark hair, a black and white t shirt and plaid skirt has her foot propped on a chair and she is starting to unzip her boot. Photo by Jeff Putney.Magic Miss Elle, Stranger Things. Photo by Jeff Putney.

After a brief beer break, Act II opened with Magic Miss Elle and her Stranger Things routine. A dead-ringer for Bettie Page, Miss Elle’s humorous tribute to the 1950s pinup girl was perfectly rendered in every way.

 A performer in a white t shirt and black pants spattered with paint and blood is swinging two fire poi. Photo by Jeff Putney.Jeto Gingersnaps, Event Horizon. Photo by Jeff Putney.

Act II was also where fire came into the picture. Maddog’s hoop routine wowed the entire audience with her skill and flair for playing with a dangerous apparatus. Jeto Gingersnaps followed with more fireplay before the second beer break.

A woman in a white shirt and black pants with thin black suspenders is playing with a firestick that appears to be suspended in mid-air. Photo by Jeff Putney.Neonium, Critical Role. Photo by Jeff Putney.

Act III opened with more fire, this time from Neonium with a new toy on invisible strings that looked like it was impossible to control. Then Maddog returned with her dragonstaff fire apparatus in an beautifully elegant routine that was literally hotter than hot.

A women in a bright green bra and bikini bottoms posing with a toy snake. Photo by Jeff Putney.Magic Miss Elle, Cthulhu. Photo by Jeff Putney.
A woman in a red corset and purple fringe thong with garters has a black heeled show propped on a chair. Photo by Jeff Putney.Lady Ly as Jessica Rabbit. Photo by Jeff Putney.

Magic Miss Elle also returned with a classic snake routine that was both innocent and sexy. As the evening drew to a close, Lady Ly, a Defy Gravity instructor who also has her own program called Flow and Flourish, returned with a sexy Jessica Rabbit number before the entire troupe ended up on stage in the grand finale.

A performer in a white corset and white tulle skirt with a black donut shaped headband posing. Photo by Jeff Putney.Mx. 'Tisabit Isn'tit, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Photo by Jeff Putney.

Perhaps what impressed me the most was the range of talent and creativity on display at this show. We’re talking elaborate props created for just one performance, fancy costumes that rival some of the best drag shows I’ve seen, and pure passion clearly visible in the well-rehearsed performances that must have required many many hours of patience, sweat and practice.

Carnivàle Debauche managed to create a scene, an uninhibited safe space in a walled garden where everyone was free to be themselves for a few hours. The $20 admission (plus tips) was worth every penny for the ultimate local community theater event of the summer, an authentic peek into the nerdy soul of our community, and a damn good time party celebration that defied all my expectations. I’m now a fan.

Top photo by Jeff Putney.