Some 20 years ago, Dina Martina started parading her subversive holiday self around the Re-bar, saving us all. This year, she finds a new holiday home at ACT, and Scott Shoemaker brings a très gay cabaret to the Re-bar.
In the beginning was Dina Martina, sent to save us from the force-fed pablum of the holidays.
Obviously, there was a beginning before that beginning, since she was sent to save us from something, but it’s the holidays — let’s not get hung up on “logic” or “facts.” Suffice to say, this time of year used to bring only a parade of performances that made some people (myself included) feel either sleepy or mildly queasy: earnest holiday pageants, more “Christmas Carols” than you could shake Tiny Tim’s crutch at, etc. If you are old enough to have lived through those dim days, I apologize for reminding you.
Then came Dina, circa two decades ago, courtesy of a local performance genius. Dina was, and remains, a delightful, sorta-kinda-drag conundrum: full of heart, empty of talent, obliviously skewering cliché and pronunciation. As she says in this year’s opening monologue at ACT (her new, bigger home — more about that in a minute): “For the people who’ve seen my shows before, you know I never bring to the table ‘jimmicks’ like continuity or narrative.” Then she asks us to hold hands with the people sitting next to us, close our eyes and listen for an uncomfortably long time to her version of the first Christmas Eve. (Mary scolds Joseph for not making reservations at any inns in Bethlehem. Joseph grumpily tells her to go give birth in a barn. The guest list for the postpartum party is mostly livestock.)
Now, in the long wake after Dina’s arrival, Seattle has bunches of lightly subversive holiday counter-programming: “Christmastown: A Holiday Noir,” “To Jesus, Thanks for Everything!,” “A Very Die-Hard Christmas” and many, many more.
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But Dina is still the reigning queen. Over the years, theater critics and national admirers — John Waters, Margaret Cho, Justin Vivian Bond — have run out of adjectives to describe Dina’s weird, solo revue of songs, stories and non sequiturs. She’s so painfully conventional, she could be anyone’s great-aunt from a backwater piano bar, yet so alluringly odd she might have been airdropped from a serious hallucination. So I’ll just plagiarize myself from years past: Dina sings like nobody’s listening, acts like nobody’s watching and dances like she already hurts.
Dina has been parading her holiday self around Re-bar (a queer-friendly dance club that pinch-hits as a theater space) for nearly 15 years, but the new home at ACT seems to have invigorated her character, and that of her longtime accompanist (the composer, pianist and “adult prodigy” Chris Jeffries). For regulars at the cozily cramped Re-bar, the new set is a gorgeous surprise: a hearth with stockings, a tall wall full of old-timey portraits, a velvety-looking green settee, a bona fide Christmas tree, a prop sleigh, more. The show’s strange magic works just as well — if not better — in the new space.
At Re-bar, Dina used to joke that the last song in the show was her favorite “because it meant the show was almost over.” In recent years, she seemed to mean it. Last year’s performance was packed and borderline aggressive: loud drunks hooting, Dina curtly nodding in response, angry-looking bouncers standing with their arms crossed. This year, with more space (and, one assumes, a bigger budget), Dina seems more relaxed. “Tonight is the start of a new era, a new ‘bejinning,’ ” she beams at the top of the show. “We hope from the bottom of our cockles it will … tickle your gag reflex!”
Part of Dina’s enduring attraction is her ability to stagger between wholesome, lewd and simply surreal, hoofing across boundaries of propriety with the warm, protective cover of seeming too naive to do otherwise. She talks about “stories passed down through gonorrhations” and declares “when Mr. Jeffries and I first performed this song eight or nine years ago, we had no idea it would become a perineum favorite.” The crowd loved it. Somehow, the hallowed halls of ACT feel just right for jokes once written to land in a queer-bar-theater crowd. Dina seems happier than ever.
She is reborn! Rejoice!
Meanwhile, Re-bar has a new, Dina-shaped hole to fill. This December, they’re stuffing that stocking with the exclamatorily titled “Scott Shoemaker’s War on Christmas!”
Shoemaker is a semi-regular on the Re-bar stage: He performed in Ian Bell’s Brown Derby Series, which hilariously and haphazardly stages famous Hollywood screenplays, and as “Ms. Pak-Man,” in which Shoemaker plays a boozy version of the video-game icon as a wash-up on the nightclub circuit. For “War,” Shoemaker has gathered a pack of cabaret/comedy performers (Ade, Waxie Moon, Mandy Price, Faggedy Randy) to make a très gay cabaret.
“War on Christmas!” is more on-the-nose Christmas counter-programming than Dina’s blithe, hazy style. For example: Shoemaker and the crew open with a Christmas-themed Guns N’ Roses cover titled “Welcome to the Jingle” (“cinnamon, cinnamon, potpourri — it’s gonna make you sneeze!”). Shoemaker insists “this is not a family-friendly show,” which, since we’re already sitting in a bar, is less a revelation than a declaration of purpose. “I’m just your average, socialist, left-wing, homosexual atheist who dabbles in witchcraft,” he explains. “As long as you’re not trying to pass laws that deny me and my friends our basic human rights or trying to stone me in the town square, we can probably get along.”
The show merrily tumbles chaotically along from there with the loose thread of Shoemaker once wanting a Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas, but getting a hetero-normative He-Man doll instead, and trekking to the North Pole to demand what his childhood self was denied. But the plot isn’t the point. “War on Christmas!” is a loosely stitched pastiche of pop culture, Christmas-y and otherwise: the Nutcracker, Krampus, Santa having an affair with Jolly the Elf, Mrs. Claus fuming over said affair by smoking and singing a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” rewritten for Jolly, Waxie Moon doing a strip routine as a Christmas tree that has to de-ornament itself because a reality TV-style host (Shoemaker) declares that his overly gaudy decorations are “a World War Tree debacle,” and so on.
The best bit of the night is a video segment called “Generously Sauced,” in which a drunken, Julia Child-ish host slurs her way through explaining how to make a fruitcake, which she repeatedly exclaims is “everyone’s favorite loaf” to “foist upon people you love.”
In the end, “War on Christmas!” is a fine, raucous diversion. It’s not transcendently great, but the crowd seemed happy to have a new, off-kilter holiday option to add to the mix — a few of the upcoming nights seem either sold out or getting close.
“The Dina Martina Christmas Show (with Adult Prodigy Chris Jeffries),” through Dec. 24; ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $27-$47; 206-292-7676, acttheatre.org