The performance artist responsible for Dina Martina.
SOMETIMES PERFORMS WITH:
A humongous camel toe.
WASN'T AT THE PARTY BECAUSE
Dina is on tour in New York City.
Having written for The Stranger for the past 50 years, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time searching for words to describe the art made by Grady West, creator of Dina Martina, who this weekend won the 2012 Genius Award for theater. A sampling of preexisting summations:
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. (1998)
Describing Dina Martina to those who haven’t seen her is a challenge. “She’s brilliantly terrible!” only does so much. A Dina Martina show introduces itself as a train wreck with the first notes from Dina’s color-mangled lips. But this train wreck soon veers off course so masterfully, it becomes a brain-bending roller coaster, leaving audiences screaming with laughter. (2012)
Imagine if a cut-rate Elizabeth Taylor impersonator went skydiving but her parachute failed and she crash-landed into a Shoney’s buffet [I defend the recurrence of this theme] after which she was forced to perform a variety show despite her ever-worsening brain damage. (2011)
I remember the exact moment I fell in love with the art of Grady West. It was during the run of 1996’s An Evening with Dina Martina at Re-bar. After a first act that made it clear that Dina Martina existed in a realm rich with ideas and satire beyond the reach of 99.9 percent of drag performers, the stage went dark for a video. It was a commercial for Dina Martina’s signature depilatory scent, which was praised in voice-over as the camera followed Dina scampering along French-looking cobblestone roads in a beret. In the final shot, a joyous Dina begins spinning in a circle on the street Mary Tyler Moore–style as the camera pulls back slowly to reveal the actual fucking Eiffel Tower. The international stunt almost got West clobbered by English soccer thugs, but it also made clear his genius for showmanship and his freakishly deep commitment to his comedy. In show after show, West has delivered jaw-dropping theatrical moments, from finales set in a tank full of Sea-Monkeys to curtain calls involving Dina driving a Pacer hatchback onstage. Such moments would be praiseworthy in the most moneyed professional theaters. In the fringe/cabaret world, they’re miracles, and exactly the type of things that win people Genius Awards.
The weirdness of Dina Martina cannot be overstated. She’s a shocking sight even from behind, with her undersized jumpsuit splaying open to reveal her hairy back. Her onstage banter scans like transmissions from a woozy alternate reality where female superstars resemble walrus prostitutes, sport brown pipe cleaners on their lapels to salute “the fight against rump cancer,” and drink hot Sprite (Dina’s favorite). The recurring role of Dina’s adopted daughter Phoebe is portrayed by a rag doll attached to a pulley system. This daughter’s name is pronounced “Foe-EH-bee” (and, coincidentally, she is voiced by 2012 music Genius Lori Goldston).
What’s amazing is that Dina has stayed surprisingly weird for two decades, forever evolving her weirdness to keep ahead of even the most well-versed fans’ expectations. Key to this accomplishment is the nimble satirical mind of Grady West, whose connection to Dina’s alternate reality is deep and mystical, and whose writing veers from goofy (Dina describes her favorite empanadas as “soft on the outside but crunchy on the inside—like babies!”) to painfully concise (describing a friend as “very poor,” Dina immediately apologizes, “I know that’s racist…”).
At Saturday’s awards ceremony, West was in august company with fellow theater finalists Keri Healey and Zoe Scofield, but he was not able to be there in person—he’s wrapping up a run of shows in New York City. The announcement of his name met with a cacophonous response, and fellow Genius Sarah Rudinoff accepted the award on his behalf, passing along his profound gratitude and sharing the fact that West’s Genius Award landed on the same day he received the worst show review of his career (from the New York Post). Everyone asked for comment on West’s win offered the same sentiment: “How did we get this far without him already winning one?”