It’s just past midnight in the lobby of the Artisan, and the air is thick with the heat of the writhing bodies that pack the room. A bare-chested temptress with shimmering, snake-patterned skin slithers among them, pouring a mysterious black liquor from a glass skull into the mouths of unsuspecting guests. Above them, a woman with antelope horns towers on hoof-like stilts as a train of shirtless, chiseled men in high heels marches behind her. Presiding over the scene is a canvas of Caravaggio’s Bacchus, gazing down from the doorway as an unofficial mascot for the excess and hedonism below.
But this isn’t Bacchanalia. It’s “Free Society,” an underground performance art event that was held after midnight Thursday at the Artisan.
For three hours, the boutique hotel was transformed into an interactive performance space that guided guests through music, dance and acrobatics worthy of a Strip show. That's with good reason -- “Free Society” was a presentation of BlackBox Theater, a recurring live entertainment showcase whose performers are culled from shows including "Le Reve -- The Dream," "O", Jabbawockeez, "Peepshow," "The Beatles Love," Donny & Marie, "Zumanity" and "Absinthe."
The evening began tamely enough, with dance and banter from emcees Nick and James Aragon (of “So You Think You Can Dance”), who were decked out in Dia de los Muertes makeup and Marie Antoinette-era drag. Singer and dancer Lina Giroux, sporting a white preacher’s robe, appropriately belted out a few notes while her entourage fanned themselves off. Wiping sweat from her forehead, Giroux threw off her robe to reveal a pearl-studded white corset and fishnets for her ensuing burlesque number. The show was heating up, and there was no turning back.
The next few hours had the audience shuffling between the Artisan’s lounges and pool to take in nearly 20 performances that ranged from a rope-fetish striptease to a drag performance to acrobatic fire-spinning; DJ intermissions between acts offered guests brief respites to cool off.
Because BlackBox serves as a creative outlet for performers outside their Strip shows, each act brought a distinct style to the show. Sheila Joy, magician’s assistant to Criss Angel in “Believe,” danced to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” on the bar whilst peeling off pieces of dripping black latex that coated her body; Michelle DiTerlizzi and Brandon Pereyda of “Peepshow” and “Zumanity,” respectively, appeared in “Free Society” as red and blue demons who bent and contorted their bodies in an intimate acrobatic tango. And then there was Dre, the crewcut, androgynous singer whose burlesque-accompanied piano covers of Lady Gaga tunes sounded so much like the pop singer that, unable to see the stage, I thought I was listening to a recording of Gaga herself.
The night wasn’t without its faltering moments -- the poolside performances were poorly mic’d, eliciting an awkward silence from the crowd after a muffled set by music guests Lady Station and original Pussycat Doll Carmit Bachar. The evening also could have benefited from being half as long; while no act failed to impress, they did start to blur together when the show entered its third hour (moreover, three hours is a long time to be on your feet for a midweek show that started at midnight).
Nonetheless, the final act was worth the wait: a sexy, splash-heavy synchronized swim number in the pool by performers from “Le Reve” and “O.” But whether guests got drenched in the “splash zone” or watched from the balconies, there’s no doubt that “Free Society” left everyone feeling more invigorated and with a lasting impression.