When you walk through Manhattan's Meatpacking District, you might see boutiques, restaurants, and Teslas. But for six nights a week this July, onlookers might see something a little stranger: a woman in a string bikini swinging around a pole, in a storefront. But this is not a peep show. It's a play. Every night in Seven Deadly Sins, Donna Carnow pole dances for a jaw-dropping 90 minutes. And her performance has gripped not just the ticket buyers. It's also attracted the attention of people casually walking by, who then stop, take photos, and ask how they can get in.
"People were trying to figure out how to get into the set. They thought it was a club," says Carnow. "I've had a lot of folks try to tip me for this show, which has been really funny."
Seven Deadly Sin, originally conceived by Michel Hausmann for Miami New Drama and directed in New York by Moisés Kaufman, is a series of 10-minute plays by different playwrights, each themed around a vice. The actors perform live, safely behind a glass panel, and the only people who can hear them are the audience members, who wear headsets.
Though it's an atypical piece of theater, Seven Deadly Sins has been greatly welcomed in a city that has been without theater for over a year, and it has been extended to July 25. Carnow's performance as an exotic dancer in Lust by Bess Wohl has captured critical attention, with most of the reviews highlighting Carnow's "impressive physical," "masterfully mesmerizing performance."
Her work is notable for several reasons. For one, Carnow not only seduces the audience with gyrations and martini spins, but she's an acrobat. She holds her body aloft against the pole with only one arm, flips upside down, and, in a feat of physical strength, physically climbs up the pole. And because there's multiple showings of Seven Deadly Sins every night, Carnow performs that demanding 10-minute routine nine times an evening.
The other feat is that Carnow never speaks. Instead, the audience hears her inner monologue, as voiced by Cynthia Nixon. She goes through her grocery list and mentally reacts when she sees a man who sexually assaulted her in the audience. When that moment happens, her smile drops and her moves become sharper, less seductive, and more aggressive.
"The body is so sexualized," remarks Carnow. "In this experience, I really see myself every day from these people outside the window that are not a part of the play: It's a spectacle. It's like, Oh my god, there's this woman who's almost naked, dancing on the pole. But [Bess Wohl] subverts it with the text: We can hear and see the next layer of what this character is experiencing."
Lust was inspired by the story of a real-life exotic dancer, Stephanie Montgomery, who was allegedly raped by a patron at the club where she worked. The club and the police department did not do anything about it, so Montgomery took justice into her own hands and paid for a billboard that detailed what happened to her. Carnow sees the play as a way of humanizing sex workers, who are usually ostracized and shamed by society when they're not being objectified.
"Usually when you see a stripper portrayed in a show or some kind of commercial work, it's more of a titillating experience," explains Carnow. "This is a really beautiful opportunity, where it's quite humanizing. And you're going through this journey that this character is experiencing, and you're feeling that resilience of: Even though this person has taken so much from me, I'm going to still keep going."
And because so many people have offered to tip Carnow for her performance, Seven Deadly Sins is now referring all donations to SWOP Brooklyn, which supports sex workers in need.
Carnow is not an actor; she trained as a dancer. She stumbled into a pole-dancing class in college in 2013 and, in her words, "it changed my life." Carnow now teaches full-time at Body & Pole, which is one of the biggest pole-dancing studios in the world, and regularly competes in pole-dancing competitions.
It's surprising she had no previous acting experience before performing in Seven Deadly Sins; Carnow has a bright smile and an animated face, and she gesticulates with her hands when she speaks. She was originally brought into the show to choreograph the pole routine for Lust, but the creative team soon realized that the only person who could physically do a 10-minute pole dance nine times a night was a professional.
Initially, Carnow wanted to do even more acrobatics. But Kaufman encouraged her to embrace simplicity, so the audience could also focus on the monologue and Carnow's face, and not just her body. "A lot of what the work that me and Moisés did, in a collaborative way, is figuring out how can we use the choreography as a container — so the language can really live and can be connected with [by the audience]. Because if it's too much physical material, it's hard to digest the language," Carnow explains. She also hears Nixon's monologue while she's performing, and it lets her time her movements to the words.
A less physically demanding routine also means that it's something that Carnow can do every night, often with only five minutes between each performance. But she's enjoying the challenge of it, even if she has to take regular Epsom salt baths. "It's a little masochistic, but I kind of love it," she says. "When you get exhausted, you unveil new layers, it strips you down a little bit. That's where virtuosity comes in. That's where this resilience comes through."
Doing Seven Deadly Sins, and becoming physically stronger in the process, has reminded Carnow of why she fell in love with pole dancing to begin with. "It is such an empowering practice," she says emphatically. "It literally trains you to feel comfortable in your body. And not necessarily what your body looks like, but what your body can do. I feel so thankful to have had this form come into my life. And to be a part of this production has been such a wild ride."
And it helps that Carnow eventually got to meet Nixon, who recorded the voiceover from her closet. After the performance Nixon attended, she greeted Carnow with a big hug. She complimented Carnow's acting, encouraged her to tell everyone in her life about the show, and, Carnow adds with a laugh, "She also said that she didn't realize she was this flexible, which was pretty hilarious."