Goddess in Progress
Grady West Drags Dina Martina out of the Gutter to On the Boards
DINA MARTINA is a living legend. Singer, dancer, raconteur, she is the quintessential post-postmodern celebrity, a one-woman Circus of the Stars. To those who have experienced the magic of Dina, she is a reason to live. To those who have not, she is nearly impossible to explain.
The primary fact that one must understand about Dina Martina -- beyond her stature as a superstar entertainer without peer -- is that she is in possession of not one shred of discernible talent or grace. Her voice sounds like a cat having an epileptic fit on a chalkboard, her body moves like two pigs fighting their way out of a sleeping bag, and her face looks like the collision of a Maybelline truck with a Shoney's buffet. Past performances have featured Dina warbling her way through "99 Luftballons" and "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," prancing about in skintight pantsuits that would make a gynecologist blush, and bestowing lucky audience members with a variety of disarmingly heartfelt gifts, from clumps of hair ("From the bathtub," says Dina sweetly) to ten dollar bills.
The secondary fact that one must understand about Dina Martina is that her extremely warped and talent-free persona is the creation of the extremely warped and talent-packed Grady West, a writer and performer who has been honing the Dina Martina Experience in Seattle and around the country for the past 11 years. Next week, West opens his latest extravaganza, The Dina Martina Christmas Special, at Seattle's On the Boards. Last week, he sat down for the first behind-the-mask interview of the man who would be Dina.
"When I first started doing Dina Martina, all I knew is that I wanted her to be so bad as to be funny," says West. "I had no aspirations, and after every performance, I'd throw everything -- wig, props, costumes -- in the trash." These statements alone are something of a revelation, as up to this point, West has resolutely refrained from placing his name anywhere near Dina's. "I never wanted people to think, 'Oh, it's that guy doing Dina Martina.' I wanted her to suspend the audience's disbelief by having her exist as her own entity, like [Paul Reubens'] Pee Wee Herman."
Dina's debut performance took place at Seattle's Center on Contemporary Art, in the 1989 cabaret Pearls Before Swine. With a $10 wig, slapped-on makeup, and no prior performance experience, West sang in a quavery falsetto to instrumentals of '60s pop songs, and garnered enough enthusiastic feedback to continue with what was meant to be just a one-off gag.
A series of cabaret appearances eventually led to Dina Martina's first solo gig -- a weekend of shows at Re-bar in the fall of '93. Over two nights, Dina charmed the crowds with her singing ("Girl from Ipanema," "Margaritaville"), dancing (a routine to the Ray Coniff Singers' version of "The Theme from SWAT"), storytelling (all improvised), and cooking (beef tongue in a skillet). "This was the first time I realized that people other than my friends were enjoying it," says West, adding that the response "changed the way I worked. I started taking it much more seriously."
This new "seriousness" surfaced in 1996's An Evening with Dina Martina, which boasted elaborate costumes, stage riggings, back-up dancers, and film segments -- including a jaw-dropping commercial for Dina's own brand of depilatory cream, in which a jaunty Mademoiselle Martina runs through the cobblestoned streets of France (no, really) before spinning in exuberant circles in front of the Eiffel Tower (a move that almost got West bashed by visiting English soccer thugs). The show's four-week, sold-out run broke Dina to the local masses, and as West reports, "People started reading things into Dina that I never imagined."
That Dina Martina's performances inspire brainy reflection should come as no surprise. Underneath the deeply perverse schtick and kitsch bubble some profound statements about the nature of celebrity -- particularly in this country, where bad actors become president, bad movies make billions, and bad singer-dancer-raconteurs are glamorous superstars, if only in their own minds. If John Waters is the aesthetic antecedent to Grady West (whose other influences include Catherine O'Hara, Carol Burnett, and his mom's drunk friends), Waters' leading lady Divine is spiritual godmother to Dina Martina. And just as Divine skewed our notions of beauty simply by proclaiming herself to be the most beautiful woman in the world, Dina, with her fearless, childlike insistence on her own superstardom, redefines what it means to be a star. Dina's a star because she says she is, and the howling, adoring mobs that have packed into Re-bar for her latest shows -- 1997's Christmas with Dina Martina and 1999's Dina Martina Live! -- have thus far refused to argue with her, offering Dina a level of devotion usually reserved for the pope and Pokémon.
But what ultimately elevates the tragically untalented Dina Martina into the arena of art is the rigorous and (as I already mentioned) highly perverse virtuosity of West. In lesser hands, Dina might function merely as a crowd-pleasing sight gag on legs; under West's discriminating and loving control, Dina blossoms into something else entirely: a full-blooded, multidimensional character who exists in a world of her own making -- a world that is often painfully bizarre, but never without humanity. "Dina is an all-around entertainer who gives 150 percent every time she steps on stage," says West. "Unfortunately, 145 percent gets lost in translation."
Dina's elevation to the art world is made literal next week as high-falutin' performance-art venue On the Boards presents The Dina Martina Christmas Special, a brand-new Dina holiday show in a tightly limited, two-week run. Structured as the taping of Dina's very own Yuletide television special, the new show marks Dina's first major Seattle production outside of Re-bar, as well as West's first time adhering to an actual production and rehearsal schedule (God forbid!), and first time working with a director (improv wizard Kevin Kent). I for one can't wait to see the collision of Dina's relentless audience mind-fucking with the slightly more sober crowds at On the Boards -- an anticipation shared by Dina's maker. "All I know is that I get to dress up in the most hideous outfits in the world and make a complete fucking fool out of myself in front of a bunch of strangers," says West. "Hopefully we'll all come out of it alive."
The Dina Martina Christmas Special plays for eight performances only, Thurs-Sun, Dec 9-12 & 16-19, at On the Boards, 100 W Roy Street, 217-9888, $15-$18. Advance tickets available at Bailey/Coy Books, 414 Broadway E.