Would you willingly embrace artistic schizophrenia?
Even fiercely kiss your inner, self-hating, subconscious bigot? Join the club. It’s a deliberate, artistic strategy stunningly deployed by stellar gay stars Penny Arcade and Franko B, the spectacular collision of two opposing points of view.
Arguably first expressed in literature by Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Imp Of The Perverse’ and refined as ‘DoubleSpeak’ by George Orwell’s 1984, it’s contrarianism writ large as art. Which is where manic, barely-sane comic Dina Martina – the probable incest brat of Family Guy’s Stewie Griffin and Ronald McDonald – comes storming in.
Hailing from Seattle, USA, she’s 301 pounds of deeply skewed fun, a human CGI ball of deeply silly putty.
So why mention her size? Because it’s the raw material of her art, darlings, Dina’s comic rocket-fuel, like Jack Dee’s trademark misery. ‘I stick to a high-sodium diet for that lush, larger-than-life look’, she giggles, her huge, plus-size clown’s mouth dilating like a gynaecologist’s nightmare.
Think Heath Ledger’s Joker squeezed in a ball-gown cursed with Michael Jackson’s falsetto, and you too might run screaming for the exit. But wait; this funky assassin in a fright-wig only has one, single target, her own, all-too-willing self. Zoning in on personal pain with the exquisite virtuosity of the Saw torture-flick franchise, Dina masterfully misleads us from moment one.
‘I live a life without purpose’ she sadly observes, but who could possibly take this cosy, human cupcake seriously? And that’s precisely the point; we’re being taken for a brilliantly contrary ride by a Wizard of Oz Munchkin with the super-shrewd crowd perception of Sigmund Freud.
But even with hindsight, it’s hard to adequately conjure Dina’s utterly demented stage entrance. Grinning like a slaughtered, Hallowe’en pumpkin, all Sergeant Pepper frock-coat and ballooning flesh, she pipes out inane, disco lyrics like a hooker on helium.
How do we take her? At face value? Not quite. See, no matter how twisted you are, there’s always someone more extreme. Take dog poo; amateurs eat it dumped and stale, but dedicated gourmets suck it straight out. Just like comedy, in fact, and Dina’s surgically precise freak-show.
And I’m in awe. Frankly, she’s attempting – and pulling off – a knife-edge balance of audience sympathies, by deliberately playing gay public poison Number One, the mincing, often self-loathing cliché. Never met one? Then check out John Inman and Larry Grayson on vintage TV. Still guaranteed to give gay rights activists instant heart attacks, Inman, Grayson and company were the utterly bland, acceptable face of homosexuality for heterosexuals.
Try that now, and you’ll be as ostracised as white actors in blackface playing to Afro-Caribbean audiences. But remarkably, Dina embodies that fluffy, yucky stereotype – the target of mass straight derision – and still melts modern-day gay heartstrings.
And mercifully, Dina’s Sitting Ovations is utterly removed from the vile, exploitative voyeurism of Soho’s deeply morally dubious Box club. Instead, she’s conceptually elegant, a drag Noel Coward of devastating double-takes and exquisitely dry, social dissections. ‘I am currently single’ she quips, ‘due to an unspoken agreement between me and men’.
Okay, so the subtlety’s often swamped in a pell-mell parade of costume changes and video clips of spoof 1980s pop tunes, but it bites. Dina’s cracked, sectioned-on-glee-pills voice sweetly trills of infants raised on booze-filled pacifiers, and middle-aged housewives memorably disfigured by ‘Necrospheres’, facial fillers harvested from spoiled corpses. In other words, USA today through a gorgeously dark, twisted gay looking-glass Oscar Wilde would’ve killed to glance at.
But there’s far more to ‘Sitting Ovations’ than faux-naive vignettes of the grotesque, distasteful and gaggingly twee. Arguably most memorable is a moody, extended reminiscence of an encounter with a (frustratingly unnamed) vintage Hollywood legend. Young, gauche and dumb, Dina’s fabulously dismissed by the aged, but still super-chic madam stabbing a prawn in her cocktail and holding it aloft.
‘This empty husk of a formerly vital creature’ she hisses to a suddenly tomb-silent room, ‘reminds me of you’. Just like anyone rash enough to risk Dina’s quick, eviscerating, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde wit, in fact. Me, I’m shrewd enough to stay way out the firing line; Dina’s an ongoing, monster talent steam-rolling any unwary opposition, and sometimes – like many reluctant celibates – it’s best to just say yes.
At the Soho Theatre until 24th October 2015