Let's assume for a moment the near-impossible: Out there, among youngish contemporary Philadelphia audiences, there may be someone who has yet to experience the guts and glamour of a Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret.
This year marks 10 years since Pig Iron Theatre Company cofounder Dito van Reigersberg donned a wig and an evening gown, put a clever spin on the name of his legendary former teacher at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, and strutted onstage at L'Etage, the red-velvet-draped jewel box upstairs from Creperie Beau Monde, for the first of what would become his regular second-Thursday gigs.
And still she struts - as she will Thursday night in an anniversary gig - all 6 feet and 2 inches of her (nearly 7 feet in platforms), hairy-shouldered and -chested, transforming such songs as the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," with a shift from major to minor, a tango time signature, and a set of powerhouse pipes that might win a nod from Patti LaBelle.
Her look is curated by Kimberly "Max" Brown, archaeologist by day, magic-maker/designer by night. The two met while singing Destiny's Child karaoke at a 2007 Christmas party, when Martha was experiencing a style slump. Since then, however, she's appeared in a geisha getup; '70s Afro-and-pantsuit combo; Amy Winehouse beehive and eyeliner wings - whatever the venue requires. Brown explains, "some rooms need a really big dress [the annual Pig Iron benefit], some are so tight the candles on the cabaret tables can set a dress on fire!" - literally, not figuratively.
Sometimes Martha lies across the bar - woe to cocktails that don't move quicker than her six-inch heels; other times she stretches across a spectator's lap, flirting, questioning, and, van Reigersberg says, "shaking people up, invading the audience . . . and trying to be a part of the way live performance can serve as an antidote to our computer/iPhone-heavy lives . . . jostling into other humans like we need to." (Van Reigersberg's father, Fernando, swears Martha is just Dito possessed by the spirit of his grandmother.)
Martha's origins lie deep in the roots of Philly's 1990s cabaret scene, when the Big Mess Orchestra's vaudeville and Peek-A-Boo Revue's burlesque commanded the Trocadero's stage. Several of Martha's band members are graduates of those troupes. Usually a four-piece combo, the cabaret players originated with bandleader/keyboardist (and senior reporter for Philadelphia Magazine) Victor Fiorillo.
Fiorillo and another Pig Iron member, James Sugg - the two halves of the Brothers Suggarillo band - persuaded van Reigersberg to make public the act he'd been performing rather furtively for friends and join them in a guest appearance. At that point, the character was called Poly Vanna Cracker, and spoke in a Marlene Dietrich-style Teutonic purr. After Sugg left the band, Fiorillo brought on former Big Mess member (and current IT consultant/Frankford Friends' middle school jazz band teacher) Andrew Nelson on bass. Nelson invited two Peek-A-Boo veterans: professional petsitter Ned Sonstein on drums, and IT consultant Richard Hill on guitar.
The band is fiercely loyal to Martha/Dito and still awestruck after all these years. Hill explains this is so much more than a "monster drag" act (think Divine, not RuPaul), because "despite the hairy shoulders, he convinces you he is a woman by virtue of his skills as an actor . . .. He deliberately sets up the surface appearance as an obstacle to the audience suspending their disbelief. That makes it all the more incredible . . .. I'd even go as far as calling it Shakespearean."
That's not such a stretch, considering that van Reigersberg, 42, a Virginia native and Swarthmore College grad, has tackled roles in Philadelphia ranging from Duke Orsino in Pig Iron's Twelfth Night to Hedwig in Azuka's Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Collaboration is also a major part of the cabaret's appeal. The band Red 40 and the Last Groovement's Jess Conda (also artistic director of BRAT Productions), describes herself as a Martha "fangirl" and says the cabaret inspired Red 40, who are "women using personas very close to drag personas to explore our literal femininity, to see another side of the cabaret diva trope." Actor David Sweeny often appears as his funkified alter ego, Johnny Showcase, a Rhode Island lounge singer who, during one performance, "theatrically wed" Martha.
Sweeny says the difference between an alter ego act, "a novelty," and a performance that transcends a scene, is the quality of the music. "If the band isn't tight, no one will buy in past the novelty. Martha is the standard-bearer for this type of performance."
But it hasn't all been glitter and bubbly. Though she's now a regular act in New York at the Public Theater's cabaret space, Joe's Pub, and has performed all-ages shows at some of Philly's most venerable institutions, there is still the occasional bump. Haddonfield Child Care, which invited her to read to its young charges, later withdrew its invitation due to adult complaints. And at the Confrontations Theatre Festival in Lublin, Poland, van Reigersberg recalls asking the audience, "Where are my gay brothers and sisters?" and immediately realizing he'd asked too much.
"I even saw someone leave," he says, "and was told he was an actor from a religious family and worried I would 'out' people in the audience. It just reminded me that open dialogue and the kind of conversation I can usually have around sexuality is nothing to take for granted."
To that end, he has, of late, been feeling more comfortable uniting Martha and Pig Iron, whose most recent production, I Promised Myself to Live Faster, recalled the drag antics of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theater Company, and offered up an ode to pre-AIDS gay life. Martha made a brief appearance, perhaps to signal how far we've come.
In her next decade, she'd like to perform more shows as full albums - Purr Pull Reign, a full-length performance of a certain Prince album, ranks among her favorites - and possibly performing with the West Philly Orchestra, or hosting a variety show à la Carol Burnett. In any case, timeless and ageless, she looks forward to gathering her fans behind her Lucite pumps and showing us how much farther we can go.
L'Etage: 8 p.m. Thursday.
Union Transfer: 8 p.m. Aug. 22.
L'Etage: 8 p.m. Sept. 10.
Fring Arts: 9 p.m. Sept. 19.