Marc Kenison was taking his clothes off, slowly, in a bare concrete room. Cyndi Lauper, Margaret Cho, Carson Kressley, and Fred Schneider—of the B-52s—were watching. "It wasn't what I'd imagined stripping for the B-52s would be like," Kenison says. "Not in an unsexy, fluorescent-lit room like that. But Cyndi Lauper sounded exactly like Cyndi Lauper. Which I somehow wasn't expecting."
Not that he ever expected to strip for pop stars. Or for anyone. Kenison studied ballet and modern dance at Juilliard. He danced with the prestigious José Limón Company for six years, performing in Sarajevo, El Salvador, and for President Clinton. He earned an MFA in acting from the University of Washington and cofounded Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET), which raised the bar for fringe theater in Seattle.
But his career as a queer burlesque dancer had its high-water mark—so far—in that dingy concrete room backstage at the WaMu Theater. (It was a birthday present for Schneider from Kressley.)
That career started in September 2006, while Kenison was rehearsing The Museum Play at WET. Some unspecified backstage drama made it a stressful experience, and Kenison, with the encouragement of a New York friend and burlesque star named Dirty Martini, took a burlesque class as a way to relax. He was the only man in the class and says he felt nervous, like he was intruding. But he was—as you'd expect from a Juilliard graduate—excellent.
"We immediately cast him in our annual Burlesque Nutcracker at the Triple Door," says his teacher, who performs under the name Miss Indigo Blue. "He's so composed onstage and his charisma is amazing. It's campy and electric and incredibly sexy and coy. And I almost want to say a little bit slutty." (She gave "slutty" a sliding intonation that is impossible to reproduce in print: It sounded like the momentary intrusion of a phone-sex operator.)
During the class, Kenison worked up his "buttons" routine, one of Indigo Blue's favorites. He enters as a vain, prissy dandy, covered in shiny buttons. Enter the leather daddy, who takes him down a few pegs. The daddy disciplines him (via flogging), reducing him to (sated) humility. Indigo still chuckles at the memory.
Around the time Kenison was creating the buttons routine, the reviews for Museum Play started appearing. In this paper, Annie Wagner described Kenison as "waxy." He embraced the unflattering adjective as his burlesque stage name: Waxie Moon.
Kenison looks like a dancer: tall and lean with long limbs and taut muscles. He says he hasn't worked out in years, that he can barely touch his toes anymore. It's difficult to believe him. He speaks in a quiet, almost shy voice, though Waxie Moon is anything but shy. Onstage, she (he? it?—the pronouns are perilous) gambols, coos, and when she doesn't get her way, she roars.
She also talks, a radical idea for burlesque, at least in Seattle. The burlesque form has only one requirement. In Indigo Blue's words: "Person enters with some clothes, magic happens, person exits with less clothes." Most burlesque dancers don't do much more than that: They develop a cutesy character, a simple storyline, and they strip.
There's nothing cutesy about Waxie Moon. She has several personae, from '70s mustache-and-jeans stripper to cross-gender fan dancer—but the dominant character is a pathetic diva. She doesn't seduce; she demands. Her foil is a mute character in a harlequin outfit (played by Wes Hurley) who serves as dresser, boy toy, and punching bag.
"She's a monster," says Jennifer Zeyl, another WET cofounder. (Both she and Kenison have since left the company.) "But Waxie wants to be loved for being a monster. If everybody could scratch every itch they ever had, in public, they'd be Waxie."
Kenison has performed as Waxie Moon at the Triple Door, the Pink Door, and the now-razed Pony, and is beginning to move from clubs into theaters. In a performance for this summer's Northwest New Works festival at On the Boards, Waxie introduced something new to burlesque: pathos.
Waxie has family legends. The best is about Diana Ross, Waxie's spirit animal. In 1983, during a Central Park performance, as Ross sang "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand," she stretched her arms toward the crowd while holding the microphone away from her mouth, admonishing the front rows, "Don't touch me! Don't touch me!"
"That seems kind of like Waxie at her most diva-ish to me," says Kenison. It symbolizes Waxie's variation on the well-worn themes of burlesque. Stripping requires an illusion of intimacy, the belief that the naked body wants to draw you close. Waxie Moon—stripper, diva, monster—wants to push you away.