Brooklyn’s House of Yes is a queer venue whose modus operandi is not only to see and be seen, but to love and be loved. One glance at the club’s reception room conveys this attitude– two dazzling eyes hang from the venue’s ceiling, presiding over mirrored walls and fabulous, barely-there outfits of the partygoers, workers, and performers.
After a meticulous check of my media credentials–House of Yes considers performer and patron safety a top priority– the host led me to the theater, which at non-performance times doubles as the club’s legendary dance floor. He actually unclipped a red velvet rope to let me by, and I stepped into the world of fantasy and awe that awaited Dirty Circus ticketholders.
The room was intimately extravagant, with more velvet ropes cordoning off VIP areas, a stage that extended through the middle of crowd seating, and the club’s infamous clawfoot bathtub. Later in the evening, one lucky patron would win the privilege of stripping onstage and taking in the circus from this sudsy throne.
Ethereally dressed kings, queens, performers and contortionists draped around the room stretching, some gracefully sprawled on the floor surrounded by the halo of their costume, others lounging on the bar. In this familial yet energetically charged room, a drag king out-of-costume haggled over music specifics with the audio engineer. This person was, as I would later learn, the host of the evening’s extravagances, Karl Karlson.
Embodying all of the pizazz and raw sexual energy of the 70s, pornstar-esque character who would later inhabit the stage, the performer belted “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to minutely different versions of the music. Exasperated, she took a break to shout to the media taking it all in (including myself): “You guys in the back! Are you gay? Me too!” And with that, Karl Karlson’s rehearsal ended, and the doors prepared to open.
About two minutes before the floodgates opened to encompass the sea of glittery guests, I scaled a ladder into the sound booth to watch the sold-out circus from an aerial vantage point. Even here, a mirrored mannequin was cradled by a giant, hand-shaped chair and refracted light from the out-of-use disco ball. Every corner of the House of Yes radiates the brilliance that the venue and its performers bring to life. Finally, after much discussion and one shout of “We have a reputation to uphold,” the doors opened, more or less on time and to the beat of “You Sexy Thing.” Crop tops and tulle skirts filled the seats, and the Dirty Circus kicked off.
First, a femme performer in a glittery, plush fruit ensemble commanded the stage and audience, explaining the raffle-ticket competition for tub seating and the rules of the show. Her charismatic monologue gave way to an even more captivatingly beautiful neon-clad dancer, twirling and whipping on a matching hula hoop high above the crowd.
Next, Karl Karlson made his first fully-clothed appearance onstage, sporting a period appropriate mustache, billowy button-down, and incredible bell-bottom jeans with a tastefully accentuated bulge. After introducing and side-line cheering for another incredible performer, “Darlinda Just Darlinda”, a burlesque dancer, Karl Karlson was the first of the evening to poke fun at the corporate vibe of 2019’s Pride Month: “Goldman Sachs is gay… Chase is queer… even Uber’s got a fucking rainbow. It’s a corporate scheme; are you kidding me?” he crowed in a raspy voice.
Uproarious laughter gave way to a tender moment of queer togetherness, the first of those that punctuated the Dirty Circus. “We get to see people performing,” intoned a gentler Karl, “performing for other people. Some human beings.”
Next onstage were the Bethany’s, human beings who performed a skit that pushed commentary on corporate pride to the edge of hilarity, combining an 80’s workout video theme with injections in uproariously upbeat tones. “Get through those Pride-time blues to be your truest, gayest self,” exclaimed one Bethany. This comedy was, as always, interspersed with true nuggets of wisdom for weathering a world that isn’t as enthusiastic towards its people as the Bethany’s are towards their audience.
“Queer intimacy is whatever we want to make it!” they half-jokingly instructed the audience. The two demonstrated their intimacy, that of strangers, by pouring drinks onto each others’ unclad bodies. Jokes aside, they ended their set with a rally cry: “Queer liberation was never about marriage; it was about destroying the power systems that only privilege a few!”
And with that, followed by more spectacular aerial dancing, the performance took its first intermission, during which a father spent $140.00 on bathtub raffle tickets for his son, who, along with another great sport from the audience, de-robed to enjoy a nice soak for the remainder of the show.
Post-intermission included fantastical performances, peasant-inspired bondage play, a hilariously queer magic set by the one and only Teagan Brown, a steamy and quite literally in-credible pole dancing set by Blaine Petrovia, and more. These performances, interspersed with alternately poignant and ludicrous commentary, courtesy of Karl, culminated in Pixel Witch’s heart-wrenching performance, in which they climbed through a blanket scrawled with slurs. Finally, Darlinda performed one last enchanting and electric dance before shimmying off the stage.
Karl returned, by now stripped out of his 70s attire and revealed as none other than Kae Burke, the co-founder and creative director of House of Yes, to sing a rousing rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This time, the song went off swimmingly. The aforementioned fruit performer, as it turns out, is the establishment’s other co-founder, Anya Sapozhnikova, who rallied the crowd during interludes throughout the show. In a delightfully aesthetic and irresistibly proud, fuzzy-feeling spectacle, all of the performers gathered joyously onstage. Under a billowing swatch of ethereal fabric and doused in technicolor, they wished their audience a happy pride and danced off to “Africa” by Toto.
After the dizzying splendor of the aptly named Dirty Circus, with a nearly dead phone and more than an hour’s commute home, I woefully made my way to the street. As I was halfway out the door, however, one of the club’s patrons wrapped me in the kind of comfortable hug-with-a-stranger that only happens in joyous, queer spaces. “Stay and dance with us!” he shouted. I replied, unfortunately, that I had to show up at work the next morning to write this very piece. “Well, Happy Pride, Baby,” he crooned as he spun me in an effortless twirl and sashayed onto the dance floor beneath the bedazzled eyes.
Happy Pride, Babies.