Philadelpia Inquirer: Martha Graham Cracker: Going strong at 7
As summer becomes autumn, Dito van Reigersberg's fancy turns to frivolity.
For the avant-garde performer, that means two things: his Pig Iron Theatre Company's starring role in September's Live Arts Festival, with its new show Zero Cost House, and his musical drag persona Martha Graham Cracker's celebration of her (or is it his?) seventh anniversary of glitz and surprisingly soulful song.
After calling Zero Cost House a "beautiful puzzle" about how one's past self and present self meet, van Reigersberg focuses on the marvelous Martha and how, after seven years of a low life in high heels, he keeps that character's experimental edge.
"I think I truly understand the character after all this time and the ways to bounce off the audience and the band," he says of each performance's unscripted, improvisational nature. "It feels like a free-fall skydive every time I do her, so the potential for glorious failure is there. Maybe that's why people keep coming back."
The quick history of Martha Graham Cracker starts when Pig Iron cohort James Sugg and Martha's longtime pianist Victor Fiorillo had their own band, Brothers Suggarillo, and a gig at Silk City. "I remember getting dressed as best as I could in a weird closet/storage area," van Reigersberg recalls. "The smell in particular sticks with me. This was not at all glamorous, but it was thrilling." ...
Inspired by ("OK, stealing," he jokes) the sexual bravura of Manhattan drag goddesses Joey Arias and Raven O, van Reigersberg's Martha was fearless, particularly when it came to highly physical audience interaction and elaborate costuming.
While crediting his stylist Max Brown (who often makes stage gowns from scratch) with Martha's look, van Reigersberg is also thankful that his knees haven't given out from throwing himself around on stage, and that applying the makeup is still a moment of breathless anticipation: "There's always that moment of putting on the false eyelashes. I'm just Dito until they go on."
Then there's the music. What makes a good Martha Graham Cracker song? Bolstered by the righteous rhythms of drummer Ned Sonstein, bassist Andrew Nelson, and new guitarist Rich Hill, the MGC band makes a joyful prayer-meetinglike noise on covers of Radiohead's "Creep," the Who's "Who Are You?", a sad-eyed take on Don Henley's "Boys of Summer," and the torch-song traditionalism of "Why Don't You Do Right?" ...
"I've learned so much about myself from Martha - about feeling comfortable as a powerful person, unafraid of being forward or sexual - it's crazy. It's how I imagine a trance might feel. I can do things, say things, and sing things as Martha that I could never myself."
Martha Graham Cracker plays on Saturday at 9 p.m. at Johnny Brenda's, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. Tickets: $7. Information: 215-739-9684, www.johnnybrendas.com.
Dito van Reigersberg '94 is a member of the Pig Iron Theater , a Swarthmore alumni-founded company that debuts work during Philadelphia's Live Arts Festival.