Naked in Alaska
Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Through November 19
Twenty-year-old Valerie Hager was down on her luck. She’d split from her boyfriend, lost her job, and owed $3500 in parking tickets which she would need to pay to retrieve her towed car. So when River, her flamboyantly self-assured BFF, suggested Valerie forget about the crummy minimum wage gig and join her at a club as an exotic dancer, Valerie went along. Once there, she was handed a skimpy costume, four-inch fuck-me heels and thrust onstage. The new girl “Autumn” was making her debut.
That night was the first in Hager’s 10 year-plus career as a stripper, an occupation that took her from her home turf in San Diego first to Tijuana, then to Alaska and then back, by way of Vegas, to Southern California. Her solo show Naked in Alaska, subtitled The True Story of Stripping in The Last Frontier, recounts those years, which ended in 2006. It’s an affecting and intensely personal memoir that offers a first-hand glimpse into burlesque’s bawdy — and for women sometimes perilous — underworld. It’s also very much one woman’s interior journey, from an insecure individual prepared to endure abuse, to a self-respecting person who will suffer none.
Except for a dancing pole and a couple of other rudimentary props, Hager performs on a bare stage — depicting, besides herself, an array of club managers, customers, fellow dancers, true pals and abusive friends of both genders. Her most pivotal relationship is with her friend Raven; the pair did drugs and made mischief together as teenagers, and they have that special bond of people who go way back. But unlike the eager-to-please Autumn, Raven is an aggressive personality who breaks rules: She allows men to touch her when she lap-dances (garnering way more tips) and thinks nothing of stealing other dancers’ customers.
Hager also depicts the often coarse men Autumn performs for (who sometimes have their own vulnerabilities), the jealous boyfriends who beat her, and other women, dancers with whom she finds a comradeship and a sense of belonging. Each character is finely etched and, under Scott Wesley Slavin’s direction, transitioned to with clarity and precision.
As the story progresses, Autumn’s skills at pole dancing develop, and by the end of the show we’ve been treated to a dazzling display of it.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 book Nickel and Dimed made a deep impression on me in its description of the travails of underpaid working-class women in a world run by men. I kept harking back to Ehrenreich’s book even as I watched Hager’s play. Although Ehrenreich’s subjects were waitresses, retail clerks and housekeepers, not pole dancers, the women in both these narratives are engaged in an uphill fight for dignity. Naked in Alaska offers a ringside seat to that gritty struggle, and a compelling one.
Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles; Fri., Nov 10, 7:30 pm; Sun., Nov. 12, 1 pm; Sat., Nov. 18, 7:30 pm; Sun., Nov. 19, 3 pm; through November 19. http://www.bootlegtheater.org/theater/; Running time: one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.