First-timers are always pleasantly horrified by Dina Martina's train-wreck, psycho-drag, too-rare-to-live/too-weird-to-die shtick. She's a shocking sight: a tall, broad broad with a camel toe big enough to sock away a wine bottle and the hairiest back in showbiz. Dina's creator, Grady West, has made a career out of playing an anti-talent, a sad woman living in a delusion of stardom while butchering the English language (Los Angeles becomes "Lozenges"), advocating for insane causes (melanoma-sniffing dogs), and mangling Top 40 hits with her cracked falsetto. The comedy is in the pathos, and she has vocal, high-profile fans—including John Waters and Whoopi Goldberg—to prove it.
But those familiar with Ms. Martina's act who find themselves at An Evening with Dina Martina (her first nonholiday show in Seattle in three years) may wonder how long she's been riding that horse. The answer: 21 years.
Dina Martina first charged into Seattle in 1989, on a stage at the Center on Contemporary Art, and has been the city's most successful something ever since. Defining that "something" has challenged critics and fans for decades. Dina's solo act has been called theater, drag, performance art, "one of the best nightmares you'll ever have," "John Wayne Gacy meets Tammy Faye Bakker," and dozens of other things that tap-dance around the edges of the truth: Dina Martina's act is highly elaborate standup comedy.
Dina has earned her ironically talent-free stardom by being better at being weird than anyone could've imagined in 1989—but she has been doing the same thing for decades. What was once surprising and revolutionary has become rote and familiar.
Which isn't to say she doesn't still drive her devoted fans wild. The opening-night crowd howled at her karaoke versions of "Wonderwall" and "No Scrubs" and her between-song patter. (A sampling: "I'm on this new diet—you can only eat when you're driving" and "I had this [costume] flown in from a place similar to Paris" and "It's like they teach you in the AA—you can't change anything, so why bother trying?") Dina Martina is still good. But, as with Gallagher or Robin Williams, you go to a Dina show knowing exactly what you're going to get.
The opposite was true at On the Boards this weekend, which presented two pieces of music, one by experimental German composer Heiner Goebbels, the other by 17th-century Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. The first act—Monteverdi's operetta about two knights, one man and one woman disguised as a man, who fight in a forest—was positively soporific. (Except for the balding Stephen Stubbs passionately playing his chitarrone. Stubbs's head-bobbing and his long-necked instrument, which looked and sounded like a lute on Viagra, stole the show.) But the second act, Songs of Wars I Have Seen (Goebbels's musical adaptation of Gertrude Stein), was surprisingly odd and rapturous.
Dozens of musicians sat on the stage with a semicircle of women in front, most of whom alternately played violins and read chunks of the text. Goebbels treated the prose like another instrument, bringing out the musicality in Stein's seemingly offhanded observations about life during wartime: "It's funny about honey, you always eat honey during a war, so much honey there is no sugar, there never is sugar during a war, the first thing to disappear is sugar, after that butter, but butter can always be had but not sugar."
Goebbels, who rarely travels to the United States but attended the performance at On the Boards, is famous for his staging as well as his compositions. His Stifter's Dinge (recently at Lincoln Center, not seen here) is a piece for zero performers, two stagehands, a wall of pianos, and bubbling pools of water. But Songs of Wars I Have Seen, performed by Seattle Chamber Players and Pacific Musicworks, is all about adventures in sound. It resembles a combination of the cosmically fractured symphonics of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and Frederic Rzewski's spritely, playful piano-work around his dramatic reading of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis. Rzewski's 1992 piece is notable for its playful treatment of Wilde's lugubrious prison poem about "the zanies of sorrow... clowns whose hearts are broken"—that tension is part of its genius.
Likewise, Songs of Wars I Have Seen is defined by tension. Stein's deceptively colloquial prose is a slick surface hiding rugged, polyphonic topography, while Goebbels's composition bobs and weaves between almost pastoral peace and brooding, martial passages. (In its dramatic structure, Songs of Wars I Have Seen is also reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.) Together, the two evoked life's lurching shifts in focus from the domestic—sugar, honey—to the noisy clash of nations. It was marvelous.