All Here for the Comeback Queen: a response by Samantha Allen

The Return of Poonie’s Cabaret

June 24, 2019 at Links Hall *

Produced and curated by The Vertical Sideshow’s Chris McCray and Ken Gasch

Sound and lights by Fran Gallagher

Hosted by Connor Konz

Performances by: Jyl Fehrenkampm, Ray Gunn, Video message from Selene Carter, Bazuka Joe, Tiff Beatty, Nicole Lynn Fox, and Carole McCurdy with video edited by Brett Swinney

image by Samantha Allen


This b!#$h is back! The Return of Poonie’s Cabaret is a sight for sore eyes.

After a long hiatus, the variety show is being revived by curators Ken Gasch and Chris McCray of The Vertical Sideshow. The previously long-running Poonie’s series “welcomes all forms of expression” — burlesque, dance, music, performance art, theater, puppetry, stand up comedy, slam poetry or “anything which cannot be defined but can be thoroughly enjoyed.”

Like many Chicago performers, I have a special place in my heart for Poonie’s. Gasch, aka Bazuka Joe in the burlesque world, said this was the first art show he saw in Chicago as a young performer. For McCray, aka Ray Gunn, seeing Poonie’s was the reason he ultimately decided to stay and dance here in Chicago. And I remember being grateful to have found such a fitting opportunity to show my early experimental work.

With its ever-changing line-up of performers of all stripes, Poonie’s is a delight for the spirit and the senses. This most recent installment was hosted by performer Connor Konz in a Furby costume, complete with a long, furry Furby phallus. Performances included:

Jyl Fehrenkamp’s smooth jazz-backed breath work and mantra workshop, featuring some graceful one-liners: “Compassion is like a kaftan, you put it on once and you never want to take it off.”

Ray Gunn’s other worldly angler-fish-caught-in-a-light-up-net strip tease, spinning and swaying, discarding layers, freeing himself and finally finishing with a perfectly lit-up package.

Bazuka Joe’s monster puppet burlesque fan dance, bare buns and all. (Full disclosure: I almost got a lap dance!)

Spoken word artist / performance poet Tiff Beatty’s lilting love letter to the straight girl she fell for in church.

Drag performer Nicole Lynn Fox’s lip-syncing, high-kicking-in-thigh-high-gold-boots solo.

Performance artist Carole McCurdy’s dance-performance-video ode to Star Trek and the first human contact — once we ditch those pesky Macbooks.

What’s so refreshing and invigorating about Poonies, I think for both audiences and performers, is that it truly feels like a space to celebrate performance without pretension. The atmosphere is casual, celebratory and care free, but that doesn’t mean the performers don’t bring their best. In fact, it feels quite the opposite. The openness and willingness of the audience feeds the performers. And the brazenness and wildness of the performers feeds the audience. There’s a sense that we are in on this together.

It is a good time. It is a funny and strange time. It’s a time to be wild and fearless, a time to play and be free. A time to try something out, to take a chance. Poonies is exciting and raw — you don’t know what you will see, you don’t know what to expect.

All of that makes a ripe space for art. For showing art. For viewing art. I’m not saying that Poonie’s is how all art is supposed to be seen, or that Poonie’s is the only performance space like this, or that this is how all performance events could or should be. I’m just saying people are into it, they’re here for it. And that is a big deal.

From my experience in the modern dance world, an excited, eager, welcoming audience isn’t a given. And when you do get that as a performer, it feels magical. Poonie’s helps cultivate that atmosphere and an engaged community of audience members and performers. That’s rad. It’s a gift.

Of course, Poonie’s isn’t the only show like this in town. And in fact, as outgoing Links Hall director Roell Schmidt mentioned in her quick recap of the show’s history, Poonie’s may very well have paved the way for similar series to spring up. And as those proliferated, perhaps Poonie’s became less direly-needed, eventually leading in part to its pause. But no more — Poonie’s is back! It’s hard work to create such a fun-loving performance space, and the more the merrier.


Samantha Allen is a performer, dancer and maker in Chicago. With L.A.-based collaborator Devika Wickremesinghe, Samantha makes live work and films through the INSTITUT IDGAF. She also partners with director Chris Cascarano on film projects, as an actress, production designer and creative producer. She’s an editor by day and also sells vintage art and furniture from her ever-changing studio in West Town.

(*) PRJ is partnering with Links Hall to celebrate their 40th anniversary by providing a platform for artist-to-artist responses to the work that is presented as part of the Pay-the-40th-Forward season. Thank you, Links Hall, for all that you do for the dance and performance communities in Chicago. Congratulations on 40 years!