I had my first Keith Cole Experience because of writer and filmmaker, RM Vaughan. After listening to me moan about the dearth of interesting LGBTQ events in Toronto, Vaughan challenged me to join him at Tallulah's Cabaret of a Friday night.
"You'll like it," he said. I wasn't so sure.
I went with trepidation, dreading an onslaught of badly coutured drag queens hurling insults at hapless audience members while miming old Helen Reddy numbers. RM had said it started at 10:30. I arrived on time, only to find he hadn't. I was on my own for nearly forty-five excruciating minutes, during which there was no sign of RM or our experiential host, Keith.
I hate shows that start abysmally late. It was turning out just as I'd feared: yet another event with nothing of interest beyond a bartender of aggressively indeterminate gender who regarded me with scorn when I ordered a Molson Dry.
"We don't carry Molson products," ze snapped.
"Are they still on the boycott list?" I inquired, thinking I might at least learn something of cultural significance.
The bartender's eyes rolled backwards in hir head. "No. This is a Labatt's house."
Well, that was something. I'd never known bars to be loyal to one brand and not another. At least there was obvious brewery determinism. I took my skunky Labatt's and slunk off to a corner.
The last time I'd been to Tallulah's was for the memorial of a friend ten years earlier. It was all black on black. Times had changed; Tallulah's hadn't. At a little past eleven, just as Keith emerged to mingle with the audience, RM showed up in one of his distinctive scarves.
"No, I said the doors open at 10:30," he explained apologetically. "The show starts at 11:15."
Ah! I was a keener then. Never a good thing when you have social phobias.
RM seemed to know everyone in the audience as he made the rounds. A few minutes later, the show started as Keith lunged onstage in an outfit and wig that shouted "Golda Meir!" Vey.
Maybe this would turn out to be interesting after all. In fact, it did.
It's not easy to describe a Keith Cole Experience, which is why you have to experience one. If I said it's a cross between a car wreck and a debutante ball, that would give you only half the picture. If I said it's the Ed Sullivan Show produced by Cirque du Soleil on bad acid, that would not be radically wrong, but just another half of a picture comprised of many unique halves.
It's vaudeville raised to the level of pornography, art embellished with an aura of trash, and yet it's more. It's the absurdism of The Goon Show commingled with the gaucheness of Little Britain. It's I Love Lucy crossed with Dexter. It's…well, you must be getting the picture.
At a recent Experience, Keith came out "as Joni Mitchell," the only real resemblance to our beloved Alberta songstress being a blonde wig with bangs. He introduced his first act, a burlesque number deftly executed by "a young man with the body of a seven-year-old girl—every paedophile's dream." Next, he sent off raunchy anecdotes to the prime minister "if he's out there" (and why wouldn't he be?) while reassuring the women in the audience ("How are the lesbians?" Keith demanded) when his introduction to a lesbian duo had gone on far too long.
Some of the show's "talent" is fresh and entertaining, and some is…well, not so fresh but always entertaining. There are dancers and singers and jugglers and porn stars and more. It doesn't matter whether Sharon Mirrors falling off the stage is high art or low. No one cares if the Famous Canadian Celebrity Biography Moment is read by someone famous or by a complete unknown—Keith is the locus of the event and he knows it.
He is why we come.
Keith probably won't end up on CBC alongside Rick Mercer, though clearly he should. He may never have an international tour, though he deserves one. (He claims to want to be "Bigger than the Internet!" but sadly, even Wikipedia failed to acknowledge Keith's recent bid to run for mayor of Toronto.)
To experience Keith Cole is to partake of his very special universe. It's like putting on your 3D glasses to watch Avatar. It will change your perception of reality, if only for a moment.
The Keith Cole Experience: Tallulah's Cabaret, second Friday of each month at 11:15 pm. Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St, Toronto. Cost: $8.
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