The Fly Honey Show hits double digits | Theater Preview | Chicago Reader

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The Fly Honey Show hits double digits

The body-positive burlesque-inspired hive of performance queens fills the Den.

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It was supposed to be a one-off event in an artists' loft space. But the buzz kept growing. Now in its tenth year, The Fly Honey Show has become so hot that by the time you're reading this, most of the tickets will have been snapped up—even the priciest $100 VIP ducat, which comes with a reserved table and a swag bag. (A portion of the proceeds this year goes to UltraViolet, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting sexism and creating inclusivity in politics, media, and pop culture.)

Still, Fly Honey's creator, choreographer Erin Kilmurray, says that she thinks the show, which started out at the multidisciplinary arts incubator the Inconvenience, where she is a company member, is still "pretty niche. There's lots of folks who are familiar with the project but haven't been able to see it yet." On opening night this year, I was one of the newbies, and in talking to other audience members, it's clear I wasn't the only virgin in the house.

The show involves so many artists that the friends-and-family demographic alone could fill the Den's Heath mainstage space, which has been the show's home for the past three years. There's a rotating cast of more than 300 performers, from the core group of "Honeys" (women or femme-identified performers and dancers) to the "Hive" (men or mostly male-identified performers who serve as backup dancers and running crew) to featured artists and one-night-only special guests. The emphasis is on body positivity and inclusivity. Keeping the proceedings—a high-octane cabaret show of burlesque-inspired dance, comedy, music, and spoken word—on track is a trifecta of hosts: Mary Williamson (who has been with the show since the beginning and cowrote it this year with Shannon Matesky), actor-singer Sydney Charles (moonlighting with the Fly Honeys while in rehearsal for The Color Purple, opening next month at Drury Lane Theatre), and longtime actor-physical theater star Molly Brennan.

Opening night, the featured performers and guests included nonbinary comedian Shannon Noll, who revealed the results of their recent top surgery and delivered a sharp-elbowed stand-up set about the problems suburban housewives named "Kathy" have with using they/them pronouns, and the all-woman mariachi band Mariachi Sirenas, whose lead singer noted that "sirenas" means "mermaid—and you know what they do to men." Michelle Zacarias, who performs under the name Cherry Darling, recalled a series of "not-shit" relationships in a spoken-word piece. And the entire three-hour sweaty extravaganza included one pelvic-thrusting, gyrating, defiant, and sexy ensemble dance number after another. Consent and respect are reinforced early on by the hosts, who make it clear that anyone touching the artists or fellow audience members without permission will be eighty-sixed.

For Kilmurray, it's the community that builds up around the show all year round that makes the biggest impact. "A couple of years ago, we started holding free public workshops. That's how we've met a lot of new ensemble members over the years. It's been pretty crucial." Participants don't need to have previous dance experience. Kilmurray notes, "The ensemble has always been, from the very beginning, a really wide range of movers, novice to professional." Recognizing that this kind of work can sometimes bring up unexpected issues around sexuality and body awareness, performer Nora Sharp also hosts a series of meet-ups for "people who are in the project and just want to talk about whatever they're going through and how they feel," says Kilmurray.

She adds, "This show offers a lot of options. If you don't feel like dancing in the ensemble, you can propose to be a featured artist." This year, the curation team also asked past performers to nominate other artists who might be interested in participating. Performers also have what Kilmurray calls "an outrageous amount of agency. We have pretty open communication for feedback throughout the whole process. The performers costume themselves, so they can wear whatever they want."

One exception is that all the performers who are topless—male, female, and nonbinary—must wear pasties, thanks to antiquated city laws requiring dancers in clubs where booze is sold to cover their nipples. The law really only applies to women, but in the Fly Honey spirit of egalitarianism, the men tape over their nipples too. Kilmurray notes, "I have so many questions about what is or isn't provocative art. You can be topless in the MCA or in an art gallery space that's a performance art situation."

Kilmurray and Fly Honey producing director Missi Davis have talked about taking the show to other cities or other venues during the year. (The Fly Honeys already get hired for some gigs outside of their regular August run.) The challenge is how to get bigger without losing sight of the collaborative nature of the show and turning it into just another burlesque-inspired showcase. "I've always been attracted to spectacle, to audience engagement, and shaping environments to offer a lens into the work," says Kilmurray. "What's so fascinating about this project is that it's been a decade-long performance practice, you know? It is a social research practice."  v

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