Burlesque impresario Fem Bones has been putting up gory, raucous stage shows from her “Robot Battle Nuns” universe since 2012, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Cambridge poet, author and performance artist Jade Sylvan finally snagged tickets to Harvard Square’s Oberon to see one for herself. “I was having a great time through the whole show, but when the Lesbian Spider Cult [scene] came on I was just like ‘Oh my god, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I would want a whole show of that,’” Sylvan recalled. “I loved it so much that at the end of that segment I literally yelled ‘Spinoff!’ in the theater.”
She made it happen, too – approaching Bones drunkenly after the show to pitch a collaboration about the cult. (Not that it took a lot of work; the Spider Cult scenes are “a crowd favorite in a thing that’s full of crowd favorites,” Sylvan discovered.) After a crowdfunding campaign that beat its $10,900 goal by roughly a thousand bucks and a delay that moved the show from last September to four performances June 24 and 26 (“it’s got a good summer feel to it anyway,” she said), sales to the show are underway.
With the “apocalyptic lesbian sci-fi horror burlesque musical” in its final weeks before taking the stage, playwright Sylvan talked recently about “Spider Cult: The Musical.” The conversation has been edited and compressed for publication.
What excited you so much that you needed to help carry on the story of the Spider Cult?
I always wanted to create “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but since that’s already done, I was like, “Oh, maybe this is my chance to help work on a sci-fi, queer, horror, camp musical production.” Basically I’ve never seen anything like this before done, with an all-original story and original score and where almost all of the actors are female. Everything I do is feminist, but this is like a little exaggerated feminism – I like to think of it as the Republicans’ nightmare of what feminism could be. We joke that it’s called “Trigger Warning: The Musical.”
Trigger warning? For what?
It’s extreme. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of sexuality, a lot of situations, there’s a lot of very, very gross things. But it’s a lot of fun, and it’s very sexy also. One of Fem Bones’ favorite things is to make people nauseous and turned on at the same time. We think it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen in theater before, and that’s why we wanted to make it. It’s sort of like the experience of going to see a summer blockbuster – but you know, like an R-rated action movie, but you’re in it watching it live. And there’s boobs.
But it’s a musical.
Every scene has a song in it, with original, distinctive music that will be performed live, but the spectacle is going to be dance numbers and burlesque, rather than a lot of singing. My intention is that it’s this over-the-top thing that is not Rodgers & Hammerstein and is definitely postmodern, but at the same time it has a lot of the sincerity of more traditional musicals.
It sounds like it will appeal to a lot of different kinds of people.
I honestly feel like there are a bunch of weirdos in this town who don’t know there are a bunch of other weirdos and who would be happy to know this exists and that they could go to a thing like this. It’s challenging because when you’re operating on a limited budget – and we’re not a huge theater company that can advertise on subways – people just don’t know that it’s there. I’m trying to do everything I can to get the word out, because it’s the sort of thing where when I tell people, they say, “Oh my god, that sounds awesome. I had no idea that sort of thing happens here.” And part of it is hard because there’s that other Boston and Cambridge and they don’t necessarily want to know about the apocalyptic, lesbian, sci-fi, horror, burlesque musical of the century. The Cambridge Arts Council asked us if we wanted to perform a preview at River Fest, and we were thinking about it and were like, I don’t know if we could string together a 30-minute, family-friendly version.
What scene would you have presented in a less family-friendly setting?
The first scene of the third act, “The Eight Limbs,” ‘in which Blondie, who’s everybody’s favorite character, has been kidnaped by the Spider Cult and is brought into their lair. She meets all eight of them, and they’re all crazy and half-naked and drinking this weird potion and painting their faces and doing this weird ritual. But there’s also the Strip Club Massacre, which is also pretty great. Scout is the main character, Blondie is her girlfriend, and the beginning of the play takes place at her strip club. It’s the first time you see the Spiders, and two of them are disguised as – well, I don’t want to give away too much. They come in and basically massacre everybody in the strip club looking for Scout. All the patrons, all the dancers, all the bartenders just get brutally massacred by these sexy, sexy ladies.
Is this a show where the first two rows of people should be covered in plastic?
In Fem’s last show, “Revenge of the Robot Battle Nuns,” there was more splatter and people were used to that. With this, we put in the invite “Don’t wear clothes you like.” There is a possibility of getting stuff on you. But it’s not like people are going to be throwing paint on you constantly. It’s going to be relatively contained – just know that you might get fake blood or vomit on you.
This has a real pulpy feel to it. What are some the influences for “Spider Cult”?
Fem has more of a grounding in horror and pulp. I like horror, but just don’t read it as much as sci-fi – and I have some grounding in old, weird sci-fi where the queer stuff is masked. I love musical theater, which is a great way of drawing people in and telling a story. “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Chicago,” “Tommy” and “Rent” were really big for me when I was growing up. And after we wrote this, “Mad Max: Fury Road” came out, and that wound up being a huge influence for me a lot in some of the rewrites.
This was not written to be performed four times and then disappear.
Ideally no! I’m hoping it will have a life beyond this and come back and be performed again. I would like to bring it to New York, or somewhere else. Even though it came out of this specific story, I think it’s pretty relatable and the story is easy to follow, and it’s a lot of fun. I think people will walk out of the theater saying, “I’ve never been to a theater experience like that before.” And I think that’s what people want nowadays. So I would love, love, love the chance to bring it to other audiences and have more people experience it.
One last, weird, question: In addition to just being a great name, “Scout” happens to be the name of one of the most iconic characters in modern fiction. Is there any connection with the character Scout from “To Kill a Mockingbird”?
I didn’t name Scout – it’s a character in “Revenge of the Robot Battle Nuns.” But when I was writing the first version of the script I made Scout’s father named Atticus. It was basically just a joke, but it didn’t get changed for way too long. He turns out to be a really dark, controlling character who doesn’t meet with a very nice end, and it got to a point where one of the actors was like, “Hey, I’m kind of uncomfortable with this, people are going to associate this with the only other Atticus. What are you trying to say?” And I was like, “Fine, I’ll change it,” and it became my little inside joke. Then, after I changed it, the “Mockingbird” sequel “Go Set a Watchman” came out and I was like, “We shouldn’t have changed it! See, Atticus isn’t so great after all!”
“Spider Cult: The Musical” will be performed at 6:30 and 10 p.m. June 24 and at 5 and 8:30 p.m. June 26 at Oberon, 2 Arrow St., Harvard Square. It is presented by Fem Bones and Jade Sylvan, with original music by Catherine Capozzi. Tickets range from $13 to 25 for this 18-plus show.