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Martha Graham Cracker: The Big Hot Mess (And Best Show In Town).

October 10, 2013

MarthaGCJB02Text by G.W. Miller III. Images by Michael Bucher and G.W. Miller III.

“Don’t fuck with me, fellas,” Dito Van Reigersberg says into the microphone as he takes the stage at L’Etage. “It ain’t my first time at the rodeo.”

He hits the “fuck,” “fellas” and “first” really hard and then drags out “rodeo,” slowly stressing each of the three syllables, with the “o” lingering for an extra moment in the nearly empty venue. With his eyes wide open and his most menacing Joan Crawford glare, Dito dramatically cranes his neck to take in the whole room. The restaurant staff, who had been eating and chatting at the bar, now sit in rapt attention.

“That’s from Mommie Dearest,” Dito explains, referring to the famous 1981 movie about celebrity parental abuse that has inexplicably become a gay cult classic. “Yes, it’s going to be that kind of night.”

Then Victor Fiorillo starts pounding on the keyboard and Dito starts singing Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.”

It’s a surreal moment – Dito sports a pair of raggedy New Balance running shoes, white socks, faded purple shorts and a green T-shirt that reads, “I got ROLFED and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” Yet, his face glows from a healthy dose of makeup and glitter. His eyelashes are long and dark, set against a silver-blue eye shadow. His cheeks are rosy and his lips are a luscious red.

It’s only rehearsal but Dito is prepared to become his alter ego, Martha Graham Cracker, the irreverent, pistol-quick cabaret goddess with hairy legs and an ever-growing army of loyal fans.

“Do I look like I’m melting?” he breathily asks no one in particular. “It’s so hot in my dressing room. I feel like I look like I’m melting.”

For nearly an hour, Dito then prances around the room while belting out Neil Diamond, Toto and George Michael songs in his husky, Nina Simone-ish voice. In between jokes with the band, Dito is all business, working on everything from his vocal range and dance moves to the facial expressions and between-song banter he will offer in less than two hours.

It’s after 8 p.m. by the time Dito and the band are done practicing. He dashes to the dressing room that has no air conditioning just as the doors to the club open. There’s a line to get in that is more than 70 people deep. Fans wrap around the corner, up 6th Street.

“I’ve been waiting for an hour,” says Tom Zerone, who is first in line. “Martha puts on the best show in town.”
The Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret is not a drag queen show.

Well, it is, at the most fundamental level since it does feature a 6-foot 2-inch tall man in women’s garb, including 5-inch heels and often elaborate wigs. But it’s so much more. It is probably the most entertaining, intellectual, complex and boundary-pushing musical stage experience in the city today.

Martha masterfully goes from delicately crooning Cole Porter classics to unleashing Whitney Houston’s greatest hits, with songs weaved together by Dito’s brilliance and Martha’s sass. Shows are full of unscripted pop culture and current events references made with amazing quickness. Martha dances around the stage and the whole room, teasing and flirting with fans along the way. It’s a very physical performance – she often sits on audience members and occasionally dry-humps them. Her comedic timing is impeccable, almost as impressive as the huge catalogue of songs she and the band know and spontaneously perform.

“I enjoy the challenge,” Dito says of Martha’s largely improvised performances. “I have to be alert, ahead of the audience, and that creates energy. The audience can feel that.”

Over the eight years that the Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret has been regularly performing, the audience has grown from a predominantly theater and gay crowd to a diverse group of fans whose only common denominators seem to be an appreciation of smart humor and the love of a well-done torch song. More than 1,700 people watched their show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year. And now the group is making inroads in New York. Dito and the band members are even thinking of taking the Martha show on tour.

“It’s funny,” muses Dito, now 40. “It’s gone from something I was nervous about doing, something I wouldn’t do in front of my mom and dad, to this. The world has changed. My mom and dad came to the Art Museum show and gave us a standing ovation.”

Still, in a post-Will & Grace world, when drag queens get reality television shows and we have openly gay athletes and politicians, a man in a dress can stir up controversy. But we’ll get to that later.

Martha and Red 40“I’ve got to warn you,” Miss Martha says to the now-packed house as she returns to the stage dressed in a ’60s retro-style sleeveless orange dress with a chunky turquoise-colored bracelet and a younger Elizabeth Taylor-era black wig. “I’ve been watching Mommie Dearest on DVD a lot lately.”

She’s saucy already, you can just tell. She makes fun of Nebraska, calls the audience members “commoners” and rambles on for several minutes about seeing Prince in a dream (he was dressed as a Mormon missionary and she told him to go away). She complains about the heat and tries to start the first song a few times but instead continues her monologue.

And then she spots a handsome man in the front row.

“I remember you,” Martha says, properly enunciating every syllable, sounding like a hoarse Marilyn Monroe. “You’re a special feature. You came with my DVD.”

He’s Latin and chiseled and Martha is enamored. She hikes up her dress, does a curtsy, rolls her shoulders quickly and touches him on the chin. She then turns to her side and glances at him over her shoulder seductively and says, “Ole!”

She stares into his eyes, seemingly forgetting that there are more than 125 people watching, and almost seems flustered for a second.

Then she adds, “Flamenco!”

And like an awkward teenage girl who realizes she just embarrassed herself in front of the captain of the football team, Martha steps back, shakes her head and continues with her over-the-top, self-absorbed, dramatic ramblings as the audience erupts in laughter.

MarthaGrahamCracker01Matthew Neenan, Dito’s boyfriend of 10 years, often tells people that he does not date Martha Graham Cracker.

“Martha is a bit more forward than Dito,” Neenan says. “Dito is a bit more polite. Martha and Matthew would probably fight a lot, which is why I stay away from her.”

Whereas Martha has a façade of fearlessness, Dito is intelligent and compassionate, a gentle soul who almost seems vulnerable at times.

“Ironically, she’s much more ballsy than I am,” Dito says.

Dito grew up in suburban D.C., in McLean, Va. His mother hails from a small town in Missouri and his father is European – Spanish via Holland. Dito’s name is the diminutive form of his father’s name, Fernando. Both of his parents are linguists, which explains why Dito has such proper diction.

As a child, he was always singing. In high school, Dito found a home in the drama department and he developed a passion for performing. At home, he would occasionally put on his mother’s makeup and try on her clothes but he didn’t know he was gay then.

“I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day with me,” Dito says with a laugh.

He continued his theater training at Swarthmore College, where he formed the deep relationships that ultimately made him call Philadelphia his home. It was during this time, in the early ’90s, that Dito came out.

“I was closeted,” he says. “The world was closeted. But it was the Will & Grace generation and I rode that wave.”

He moved to New York to become an actor and enrolled in the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. Original Martha, a modern-dance legend, had passed away a few years prior but her reputation persisted.

“I heard all these stories about how bitchy she was,” Dito remembers.

The singing, dancing, acting, cross-dressing and bitchiness all started coming together and Martha Graham Cracker was born.

“Martha was something I did in my living room in New York when I was in acting school,” Dito recalls. “She was invented in New York but she became a reality here in Philly.”

Dito moved back to Philadelphia where he, Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel and Dan Rothenberg founded the Pig Iron Theatre Company, which has gone on to major acclaim. The company has won numerous Barrymore Awards,  a handful of OBIEs and a Pew Fellowship. Last spring, the Pig Iron Theatre was awarded a $60,000 grant to create “a multimedia opera in the tradition of Pink Floyd’s The Wall” in collaboration with Dr. Dog.

Martha Graham Cracker began making guest appearances during shows with the The Brothers Sugarillo, a band that featured James Sugg, a Pig Iron Company member, and Victor Fiorillo. During those first performances, Martha actually went by the name Poly Vanna Cracker and she performed with a German accent. When The Brothers Sugarillo folded, Fiorillo suggested to Dito that Martha have her own show.

“I blame it all on Victor,” Dito says.

They began performing monthly at L’Etage in 2006 and making appearances at the Fringe Festival, the annual Pig Iron fundraising gala and elsewhere. Audiences flocked to shows, performances became more elaborate and the band grew – now including Rich Hill on guitar, Andrew Nelson on bass and Ned Sonstein on drums. But they never took themselves too seriously.

“We’ve fucked up so many things in so many ways,” says Fiorillo. “People don’t seem to notice as long as Dito’s doing his thing.”

In New York, Martha would have been lost in a sea of drag queens and other talented people. Elsewhere in the country, there may not have been the support group that Dito and company have here, largely because of the theater community. In short, the incubation and evolution of Martha may not have happened anywhere else.

“I’ve grown to love Philly so much,” Dito says. “Martha is a Philadelphia phenomena.”

Last fall, Martha and the cabaret group performed in the ornate Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall, surrounded by gilt-framed portraits of all the past mayors of our city.

“I’m in the physical center of our city, in drag,” Dito remembers thinking. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Martha and JohnnyMidway through Martha’s show at L’Etage, she’s really sweaty. Her broad shoulders are covered in dark hair that glistens because she’s been dancing, grinding, jumping on the bar and otherwise working the room. Her once immaculate orange dress is drenched, especially the back, which is now a deeper color except around her bra straps. The dress has popped a seam; there’s a tear under her hairy right armpit.

“Her actions and reactions are so full, you have to be careful how you dress her,” says Max Brown, the woman who has styled Martha for the past five years. “She rolls on the floor and flirts with the audience and you have to find something that will stand that without disintegrating.”

september2013MarthaCoverBrown, an archeologist who regularly travels to Italy searching for the location of the legendary Rape of the Sabine women, has dressed Martha as Marie Antoinette (including a huge wig and hoop skirt), Queen Elizabeth I and Marilyn Monroe (circa Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). She’s put her in cheerleader outfits, wedding gowns and the ugliest, bright-orange bridesmaid dress you have ever seen.

“He’s very attractive and he looks very good in women’s clothes,” Brown says. “We don’t hide the fact that he’s a man. We’re trying to show his best features in these clothes.”

Being a hot mess, however, is part of the show and tonight, Martha is working it.

“Gary, are you a jockey?” she asks a man sitting at the bar, an apparent inside joke.

“Not yet,” the man replies, inspiring a roar of laughter.

“I may be tall but I’m a lady,” Martha indignantly responds while backing away. Then she stops, leans forward and adds, “So if you’re going make an innuendo like that … say it right here.”

While walking back to the stage, Martha gives saucy, over-the-shoulder looks at the young man and then breaks into a slowed-down, sensual version of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”

She saunters around the stage and steps into the crowd, easing upon the Latino man in the front row. She sits on his lap. Then she climbs on top of him, enveloping him in her muscular arms. She gives a few pelvic thrusts while belting out the ’80s hit.

When the song ends, Martha stands, smoothens out her dress and says, “I might have just pulled my groin. But it was motherfucking worth it.”

Times have changed since Dito first came to the Greater Philadelphia region, for sure. There’s now a cable network dedicated to the LGBT community. Gays can openly serve in the military. The Defense of Marriage Act has been overturned.

But a man in a dress – especially one whose performances are so sexually charged – can still cause a fuss (even when his suggestive behavior is totally done in the name of comedy).

Last winter, a Haddonfield after-school program invited Martha to perform the cabaret act for children in kindergarten through the fifth grade. A few days later, however, Martha was disinvited after the program’s leaders got wind of the event.

“Is it OK for a drag queen to be around children?” Dito asks rhetorically. “Will it make them be gay or say, ‘I want to be in a dress?’”

He shakes his head and looks disappointed.

“I just don’t believe I’m going to ruin children,” he says.

(Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City invited Martha to perform for children in response to the Haddonfield episode and indeed, not only were children not ruined but parents and children alike were massively entertained.)

A few months later, Center City Jazz Festival founder Ernest Stuart invited the Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret to participate in the second annual event. During the week before the festival began, Stuart received an unsigned email that read, “Really, A faggot drag queen at a Jazz festival? You are disrespecting your ancestors!”

“I’ve dealt with my fair share of shitheads in the past but that emailer took it to a whole new level,” says Stuart. “Anti-gay sentiments within the jazz community are not uncommon. Simply put, those sentiments ignore the contributions of gay jazz musicians whom helped lay the foundation of the music.”

Miss Martha used the email as fodder for her show, ridiculing the emailer for not realizing that Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein and so many others in the early days of jazz were gay.

Stuart now sits in with the cabaret crew, playing trombone in the band.

“What’s not to like?” he asks. “Non-stop laughter, great music and beautiful people in the audience. I’m in.”

MarthaGrahamCracker05After performances, it’s hard to look back and pick out the specific things Martha said or did that made the show so entertaining. There’s just so much that happens – the banter is so lightning-quick, the songs so well-done, the dancing so outrageous and the flirting, well, so hilariously awkward. The show is so layered and the character is so complex and fleshed out.

That’s probably why the crowds are so large and so diverse in age, gender, race, lifestyle, whatever. It’s not a gay show.

“A traditionally gay crowd out for a party would want to spend $5, drink a lot and see a tragedy,” says Ian Morrison, a drag queen who has performed as the outrageous Brittany Lynn since the mid-’90s. “Spend $5 and you get what you pay for – girls lip-syncing to boring Top 40. You spend $15 or $20 and you want a real show. That’s what you get with Martha. It’s not lip-syncing. It’s all theater and all vision. That’s what real drag is all about.”

Real drag. Putting on a costume and makeup and adopting a whole new persona. Not thinking about personal limitations or even reality. Focusing on entertaining people, making them laugh by whatever means necessary.

“Martha allows me to express myself in other ways,” Dito says. “It’s an outlet for my energy.”

It’s a way for him to really be free.

“What’s great about it is that Dito is more Dito when he’s Martha,” says Martha Stuckey, who studied under Dito at the Pig Iron Theatre as part of the inaugural class in their Advanced Performance Training program. “Being in drag complicates the idea of gender. But they say that it’s not putting a costume on, it’s actually letting the person out.”

Stuckey, who moved to Philly from Minnesota to participate in the rigorous training, remembers the night she first met Dito. It was a somewhat formal event where the incoming theater students were introduced to the teachers. When she and a few other women entered the women’s bathroom, they found a dildo.

“Everyone was blaming Dito,” Stuckey says with a laugh. “The drag queen always gets the short end of the stick.”

MarthaGCJB09Martha ends the 90-minute performance at L’Etage with a rousing rendition of George Michael’s “Freedom 90” and then runs out of the venue, into the dressing room. For the next three or four minutes, the crowd howls and applauds and refuses to leave.

Finally, Martha bursts back into the room.

“What did I say, Christina?” she barks, continuing the Mommie Dearest theme. “No wire hangers ever!”

Her stern expression immediately commands the room and quiets the crowd. She then sings a delicate version of Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” with the high notes just out of her range. Her voice cracks, and Martha almost seems exposed for a split second.

Then she eases into a raunchy version of Prince’s already raunchy song “Darling Nikki.” Looking fierce, Martha stomps around, pets the Latino man in the front row and ends the performance with a series of poses – part Madonna-like voguing and part sequined Elvis-era martial arts stuff. With one final deep squat, the audience can see up Martha’s dress at Dito’s tighty whities.

In the dressing room a moment later, the wig is off and Dito fans himself with his hand.

“Oh my gosh,” he says, still sounding like the breathy Martha. “It usually doesn’t hit me right away like this but it’s so hot. I’m really going to feel it tomorrow.”

Neenan, Dito’s boyfriend, knocks on the door and enters.

“Were you here the whole time?” Dito asks.

“No, I just got here,” Neenan answers.

“You look so handsome,” Dito says, his voice returning to normal.

And then Dito turns his back to Neenan, a co-founder and co-artistic director of Ballet X, who instinctively starts unzipping the damp orange dress.

“We are both in the performing arts, yet not in the same idiom, and that’s been so healthy for our relationship,” Neenan says later. “Even though we have never really collaborated artistically, he has made me a better artist and a better man.”

One Comment
  1. Sara permalink
    December 27, 2013 9:27 pm

    This group is fantastic. So glad you covered them in such an in-depth piece. Definitely a lot of details and background story I’m glad I now know.

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