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A Hairy Situation

September 13, 2017 5:00 am0 commentsViews: 15
 Photo: John Huber

Photo: John Huber

Martha Graham Cracker Comes to Provincetown

by Steve Desroches

Growing up in Virginia one of Dito van Reigersberg’s favorite things to do was watch 9 to 5. He recorded the now classic movie off the television during a broadcast and would watch the VHS tape over and over and over again while both his parents were at work. As he watched characters portrayed by Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin battle their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss, played by Dabney Coleman, he at first identified with the comedic elements of the film. But as he grew older and watched his favorite movie again, he began to absorb the more sophisticated messages and elements of the film about feminism, discrimination, and gender roles.

The concepts in the film planted seeds at a time when van Reigersberg liked to play dress-up with his mother’s clothes, jewelry, and makeup and was thinking about his sexuality, before eventually coming out as gay. As a young boy he felt the rigidity of gender, particularly in the realm of self-expression, in which boys were often given a narrower band of emotions. A boyhood in the 1970s and 1980s taught that vulnerability and related feelings are best left unexpressed if not outright squelched. But the messages in 9 to 5, and within feminism itself, made it clear that these gender-based directives were absurd and stunted the human experience.

As he grew and pursued a life in the theater, living in New York City studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse, van Reigersberg took in all sorts of live performances, being there for the drag explosion of the 1990s. And it was performers like Joey Arias and Raven O that presented totally new ways of thinking about drag, inspiring van Reigersberg to do the same, eventually leading to the creation of Martha Graham Cracker, the immensely popular, powerhouse vocal, hirsute drag queen hitting Provincetown this weekend for the Afterglow Festival.

“I’m a six-foot-two, hairy man, but I want you to believe I’m a woman,” says van Reigersberg. “And people usually do. And I think they appreciate the confusion Martha brings.”

Martha Graham Cracker has become the toast of Philadelphia, the city where van Reigersberg lives and operates the Pig Iron Theatre Company, which he founded with fellow Swarthmore College alumni. Performing as Martha, which he does monthly at L’Etage, a Philadelphia cabaret space, represents a permission to express all that he was told he shouldn’t do both as a young boy and later as a gay man. With hairy arms, legs, chest, and shoulders, once he puts on a wig, dress, and lipstick with a five o’clock shadow van Reigersberg becomes a mélange of gender with carte blanche.

Photo: Chris Crisman

Photo: Chris Crisman

A Martha Graham Cracker show is wildly unpredictable, and she is relentless in her interaction with the audience as she stuns with her rock and roll voice tearing into everything from soul and glam rock to a blow the roof off the house rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” One is never out of reach, quite literally, to Martha during a performance, as the theater or cabaret becomes a jungle gym for her to traverse with the sweat glistening on her chest hair and her makeup begins to run. Above all else, Martha is an expression of joy, even if at times presented through the lens of sadness, loneliness, or despair. As a student of acting, van Reigersberg was particularly drawn to the concept of the clown in performance. Not the classically understood clown from the circus, but rather the comedic school of thought that breaks down the fourth wall and invites a bit of chaos. It gives the performance an immediacy, as if at any instance it could all fall apart, as well as the feeling that the show can never, ever be duplicated. What you’re seeing will only ever happen once. That makes van Reigersberg feel in the moment, and in turn keeps his audience in the now, as well.

“Failure, as long you share it, is as big a part of clown performance,” says van Reigersberg. “The audience almost enjoys the failures more than the success.”

A frequent favorite of the Afterglow Festival, the annual mid-September event that brings some of the best of alternative cabaret to Provincetown, van Reigersberg revels in the chance to be a part of such a magical place. It’s natural beauty and embrace of the LGBTQ community are one thing, but the theatrical and performance legacy of the town is breathtaking. For unique performers like him it’s not always easy to find a safe harbor for a character like Martha Graham Cracker. But with a town that for almost a century has been home to drag performance in some form, for Martha to come here, hairy shoulders and all, and be embraced is an experience like no other. And there is the chance to be some of the other big names of today who are pushing the art form into all kinds of previously unthought of directions.

“My favorite drag queen is Dina Martina,” says van Reigersberg. “I believe we are second cousins.”

The Afterglow Festival presents Martha Graham Cracker in You Break It You Buy It at the Art House, 214 Commercial St. on Saturday, September 16 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets ($30) are available at the box office and online at ptownarthouse.com. For more information call 508.487.9222.