It's a quarter to 8 on a Monday night at Open Stage, the weekly talent showcase at House of Poets in Richardson, and the incense is growing Vatican-thick. The show happens on a raised platform along one wall of an oblong banquet hall at the back of a shopping center, behind a Salvadoran café and next door to a hookah bar. The room is as dim as an opium den, and the sticky-sweet patchouli scent hangs heavy in the air.
For a $5 cover you get to sit in a straight-backed chair or curl up on a pile of velvet pillows on the concrete floor down front to watch six to 10 acts, depending on how many sign up. About 40 people are in the audience for this evening's performance. Many are in costume, as if they just got off work at Medieval Times. Or perhaps they're among that small slice of the population that shops for everyday clothes in booths at Renaissance fairs.
The master of ceremonies is Russ Sharek, who founded Open Stage as a spin-off of a juggling club he started a few years ago. With his shaved head and long goatee, Sharek, wearing a stocking cap, red and gold vest and brown harem pants, is an impish Cabaret version of Rasputin.
Open Stage 8 p.m. every Monday at House of Poets, 580 W. Arapaho Road, Richardson. Admission is $5. No reservations needed.
First order of business is the rundown of rules of decorum. Sharek tells the crowd, most of whom already seem to know the drill, that there's no getting high allowed at Open Stage. Drinking is fine, even encouraged. There's a "community punch bowl" by the door, and you can share in it or imbibe your own brought-in booze. You can order food, too. Hummus and shish tawook sandwiches can be delivered in sacks from the Lebanese joint at the other end of the sidewalk.
Next rule: Clapping and cheering are a must, but no mean heckling. Sharek holds up a plush toy called the "Positivity Pill" and says that anyone caught sending bad vibes toward the performers will have it lobbed at them.
Open Stage, Sharek explains to a visitor before the show, is all about taking risks onstage, but in a supportive environment. "They're all exploring and experimenting with their acts," he says. "We like to keep the atmosphere positive and encouraging."
First up on this Monday's show is Bret Crow, a gangly singer in a checked hat and horn-rimmed glasses. He slaps his bass guitar as he talk-sings a couple of songs about the meaning of life and things he'll never do again. Called back for an encore, he does another talky-singy tune, this time with considerably more head-nodding and bass-whapping, about going through a drive-through in the wee hours.
Act number two is Cypher, a spoken-word artist who launches into free verse she's written that sounds like many stanzas of "lovemommydaddylovemesomeone." She works herself up pretty good and the crowd responds with a loud burst of positivity. She's also wearing a tight miniskirt that threatens to creep up above the danger zone, something some in the audience seem to be trying to force with the power of positive thinking. She finishes her piece to big applause, having revealed nothing more than the depths of her soul.
Up next, guitarist/singer Kelly Nygren and partner Will Richey. She has a singing voice as warm and dark as a cup of fresh java, but she only gets the choruses. Richey talk-sings lots of verses of "I'm in Love with a Hypocrite," reading lyrics off lined paper. He rhymes "cash" with "cash" and "moon" with "moon."
Samantha, Summer and Judy, generously proportioned belly dancers in matching low-slung black pants, sparkly bra tops and jingly coin hip-scarves, come next. They undulate to Middle Eastern Buddha Bar music and make their arms go snaky as their hip joints roll. They're good, but they don't relax and smile until they take their bows.
Then comes Wayne Greene, another folk singer and acoustic guitarist who talk-sings about taking the subway out of Greenwich Village. Greene's a longtime regular on the local coffeehouse circuit. He spent eight years playing guitar with singer/songwriter Emilie Aronson and has opened for John Sebastian, Shake Russell, Nanci Griffith, Dee Moeller and the late Townes Van Zandt. Now he's here, buried deep on the bill in an amateur showcase. But musicians have to make music whenever, wherever, right? Any night on a stage is a little better than a night without one.
Sonya Jevette, a tall black woman in tight jeans, boots and straw cowboy hat, comes on to big applause. She hits the button on her drum machine and makes liberal use of a wah-wah pedal as she pushes her big voice and good guitar plunking into a couple of original songs that straddle rockabilly and R&B. The crowd loves her and shouts for more. She goes with "Big Girls," a sexy, bluesy rant that lets men who think otherwise know that in bed "the bigger the cushion, the better the wobbly-wobbly." Sing it, sister.
Tonight's final act is Dallas burlesque performer GlamAmour. She's been doing her "Stripping Poet" routine at Open Stage since May, combining mild ecdysiasm and recitations of classical works. She has stripped to a monologue from Cyrano de Bergerac, some Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems and is working on baring to the Bard with excerpts from Macbeth and Taming of the Shrew. On this night, she's in a playful mood, having just celebrated her 40th birthday. Built like a taller, rounder Mae West, GlamAmour steps onto the stage wearing ruffled red boxers and a silky black kimono. As she reads the first few lines of "Line and Squares" by A.A. Milne — "Whenever I walk in a London street, I'm ever so careful to watch my feet" — she slowly and a little awkwardly peels off the robe.
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Suddenly, from all over the room, the sound of camera shutters whirring open. One, two, three, six photographers scuttle toward the stage, lenses pointed at GlamAmour as she wiggles out of the slinky kimono and covers her bare breasts with a stuffed toy, a gray moose, as it happens, and not Winnie the Pooh.
She reads more poems by Milne, to hoots and whistles from the audience. She finishes and sits up on her knees, tossing the moose aside. Sparkly red tassels cover her nipples. She poses for the shutterbugs now ringing the stage.
That's all the acts on tonight's roster, but the crowd lingers for what Sharek dubs "Performers' Playground," a free-form playtime for anyone who wants to sing, read or dance for a couple more hours. Down in the pillow area, Cypher and two friends twirl Hula Hoops around their middles. A couple of guys juggle glow-in-the-dark balls. Someone takes a long pull off a wine bottle and passes it on.
Maybe it's the incense, maybe it's an overdose of Positivity Pills or what's in that punch bowl, but everyone who was sitting down before now is on their feet, acting a little too giddy for a Monday night. Even if they start juggling each other, nothing can top tits and a toy moose. This show's over. Time to giddy-up and go.