TO STRIP, or not to strip - that is the question.

Whether 'tis nobler in the club to smother

With tassels and skins of outrageous proportion

Or to take arms against a city of taxes

And by dancing end them. 

Not the kind of dirty talk you're looking for? Well, tough, because the art of delivering Shakespeare and that of dancing for a leer aren't so different, say lawyers for three Philly strip joints.

The attorneys are appealing the city's recent push to assess a combined $1.6 million in back taxes, interest and penalties on the clubs. They are arguing, in part, that exotic dancing is theater - specifically, "contemporary American theater," which is exempt from the city's amusement tax.

Buy the argument or not, it made for good theater yesterday at a hearing of the Tax Review Board, which will answer the ultimate question: To tax, or not to tax.

As first reported in the Daily News, the city recently assessed a combined $1.6 million in back taxes, interest and penalties on Club Risque, Cheerleaders and Delilah's. The city applied the amusement tax, 20 percent of the cost of admission for certain events, on the price of lap dances.

Club owners contended this was a double tax - they already pay the amusement tax on what customers pay as a cover charge to get in the door - and appealed the decision to the board. They unveiled the new argument at yesterday's hearing, saying lap dances should qualify for the amusement-tax exemption for "contemporary American theater" productions.

Katherine Profeta, a theater professor at Queens College in New York, visited all three establishments and testified to the board that exotic dancing is "part and parcel of a larger phenomena, which is contemporary American theater."

"You can't just get up there and move around naked," said Profeta. "There's a lot of technical virtuosity."

She compared strippers' use of onstage alter egos to acting and walking in extremely high heels to ballet dancers donning toe shoes.

The latter didn't sit well with Marissa O'Connell, a city attorney who said she has a background in ballet.

"But toe shoes make you bleed," O'Connell countered when cross-examining Profeta, who has a doctorate from Yale University.

"They're not a theater," O'Connell said. "They hold themselves out as nightclubs."

O'Connell said lap dances are a separate form of amusement within the club and therefore should be levied with a separate amusement tax.

With the two sides poles apart, the Tax Review Board, a five-member panel of mayoral appointees, will hear more testimony tomorrow and at two hearings next week before revealing their decision, which can be appealed to Common Pleas Court.

On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN