BY SCOTT STIFFLER | If you plan to tie the knot in the United States this year, you’re in good company. Sidelined for the past two years by COVID, relaxed public gathering protocols mean that 2022 will see an unusually high amount of packed pews and reception halls.
Indeed, wedding prep website theknot.com puts at 2.6 million the number of matrimony mishegas expected to take place this year. But before you apply for a marriage certificate or book an officiator, may we suggest seeing the new solo show from world-renowned, multi-talented, preternaturally capable drag queen BenDeLaCreme?
Billed as a “narrative-cabaret,” BenDeLaCreme is…Ready to be Committed sees she of the eternally sunny disposition vow to take herself into thoroughly unexplored territory, by getting married. The project proves to be a bit of a fixer-upper, as DeLa isn’t even engaged… or dating—a minor detail for someone whose obsessive attention to detail, drill sergeant-like way of rallying the troops, and laser-focused eye on the prize would put even the most exacting Bridezilla to shame. Highly capable as she is, DeLa’s also got an aggressive streak of naivete which renders her oblivious to roadblocks both major and minor. Thus, the breezy primer on putting together a wedding becomes the prism through which societal expectations, perfectionism, self-image, and the Golden Rule get a thorough dressing down and a drag queen-level makeover that redefines them for the modern age.
Performed at a quicksilver pace and in a manner that mashes up everything from burlesque and vaudeville to high camp, history, philosophy, and puppetry, Ready to be Committed deserves the blanket description of “art” just as surely as DeLa has earned the moniker of “artist.”
Or maybe not. But probably. See, this assessment of the show is based on a very early (but by no means rough) public performance in July of 2019, at NYC’s Laurie Beechman Theater. The performance was meant to be a prelude to a national tour, which is currently happening after a two-year, COVID-caused delay. So as you might imagine, we had questions for DeLa about what we’d see this time around.
Scott Stiffler for Chelsea Community News (CCNews): You’ve had several successful solo shows starring DeLa, but this one shows us facets of her character previously addressed but not fleshed out. Why use this as a vehicle to do so?
BenDeLaCreme (DeLa): I have explored a lot of different subjects through DeLa, from science to religion, but I’ve never really had her touch on something that is sort of more personal and intimate to the character. She’s always been sort of pretty aggressively asexual and just sort of oblivious to the idea of partners or relationships, so this is the first time that I’m really bringing her there. And I think part of why it works is because she doesn’t even really realize she’s going there.
CCNews: How do you play that cluelessness in a way that doesn’t get the character, or the show, stuck in one place?
DeLa: One of the things that I really love about this camp tradition is there’s a really fun thing where the audience gets to be in on something they also know the writer and the actor are in on, but the character is not. You can constantly give a commentary because the audience can tell that the writer and the character are actually thinking almost opposing things. From the beginning of the show she is sort of meandering and unfamiliar, but we can see what she’s missing and what complexity and nuance she’s unwilling to look at—so that by then end, when she finally arrives, I think there’s a satisfaction that she is completing this journey, and I think it works specifically because she has this wide-eyed, ditzy demeanor that lets people come at things from a fresh place.
CCNews: All of the same basic plot points and subject matter seem to remain in place, from when you premiered the show back in 2019. Has the COVID era that delayed your present tour informed the material?
DeLa: With the time I’ve found myself with, I’ve been working to up the ante on the production values. I was wondering if anything would hit differently now in a COVID world, but I really find the exploration of how we view love and relationships in our culture holds pretty fast and if anything feels, I think, even more immediate and relevant.We’ve all gone through something that’s emphasized how important connection and even the act of being physically present with somebody is, which I think has only helped the material… But it definitely goes in unexpected directions. I think that people expect “a gal goes out there looking for ‘the one’ and we see the results of it”—but I really, in the writing process, tried to take it in a direction that spoke to something more universal, about how we relate to those ideas whether we find ourselves with someone or not… We all deal with the stories we’ve been told about what love should be, about what relationships should be, what true love is. That really messes with people’s perception and their ability to have a real connection as opposed to comparing it to this ideal fairy tale.
CCNews: It’s funny that in order to deconstruct the fairy tale world, you often use puppets—something just as make-believe and fantastic—as a comedic foil or divisive device.
DeLa: Puppetry has spoken to me since I was a little kid. I fell in love with the Muppets and Jim Henson’s work only a few years before I discovered drag. I mean, Miss Piggy was basically my first drag queen. The kind of camp drag that I love, that I’ve always been pulled towards through Varla Jean Merman, Charles Busch, it’s very much in the same world as this puppetry storytelling. They’re kind of these larger than life, sort of ridiculous characters that we have to use our suspension of disbelief to belief to believe are really grounded and live in a real universe. But for some reason they’re so inviting and colorful and fun that we’re willing to go on that journey and when you’re dealing with something that’s big and campy like a drag queen or big and campy like a puppet, you are willing to go be sort of led down more complicated paths… I want things to stay fun and lighthearted. I want audience to laugh and have a great time, but I also really like to explore some ideas that are a little more complicated than the character of DeLa could ever wrap her head around. So she needs somebody else who can lead her into these subjects and some of these subjects are maybe a little too heady and hard to get into in a playful setting unless it comes from some ridiculous inanimate object come to life.
CCNews: Let’s talk a little about your body of work with the great Jinkx Monsoon. As we’ve previously noted, the two of you are working a buddy/comedy team dynamic that draws from the classics but also brings something new to the table. How did that dynamic develop?
DeLa: Jink and I have known each other for a long time, well over a decade at this point. We were both sort of up-and-coming performers in Seattle when I first came across her. I thought, “This queen is really working in the same world. We have the same sensibilities. We better join forces now or we’ll wind up being each other’s competition.” So when we started, there was more of maybe an even-keeled, more expected give-and-take. We were less oppositional. It [being warring besties who eventually reconcile] really started once we moved into creating these Christmas shows. I have always had my sort of naïve, wide-eyed character on stage and she has always had her boozy, brash character—but when we bump up against each other, it brings out new levels of it. I mean, the Jinkx and DeLa version of DeLa is infinitely dumber than any other version of DeLa, and Jinkx is more kind of cynical and snarky than she can be. We really do balance each other out well and I think a big part of it is we have these very oppositional characters, who we use to say the same things. Both Jinkx and I as artists, as writers, have a lot of the same mission statements. We feel similarly about the holidays and the difficulties of it, and the importance of community, the importance of creating your own rules and your own life. But through the characters… You know, DeLa has to not get it so aggressively that we know the writer gets it. And Jinkx has to be so pushed to the extreme that it is blocking her ability to experience joy that we [the audience] understand we’re at opposite ends of the same commentary.
CCNews: Commetary. That brings us to the end—of Committed when I saw it in 2019, the awesome Jinkx and DeLa Holiday Special (2000), and your 2021 holiday stage show with Jinkx. There’s so much innuendo, rancor, camp, and gleefully sexual content throughout—but every show ends at a place of earned sincerity, with a serious, even sober, message about the importance of community. That’s really tricky to pull off.
DeLa: I do always do that within in my shows and the shows I do with Jinkx, but I’d say it’s less of an obligation and more of a mission statement. I mean, everything else is really fun—but if it lacks that heart, it’s not the show I care about making. It’s gotta have that sincerity and that vulnerability. But vulnerability and sincerity are hard sells these days. People do not feel comfortable with something that they perceive as too schmaltzy or too sincere—and I think that it’s all those cynical digs [preceeding the sincerity] that allow people… You know, it’s sort of this ratio: You can give them 90% dick jokes and snark and then they will go with you in that 10% of genuine, intimate, vulnerable emotion—and that’s why I love it, and that’s why I love the camp and the puppets and all of it. People will go there with you. I think there’s something about artifice that leads to truth when truth alone is too scary for people.
CCNews: One last question: Will you and Jinkx be touring with a new holiday show this year?
DeLa: We’ve not announced anything yet, but I think most people assume what is the truth—which is, we will back on the road with another Christmas how this next holiday season… and I think that’s something we’ll be prioritizing for years to come.
BenDeLaCreme is…Ready to be Committed plays at 8pm on Wednesday, May 4 at NYC’s Sony Hall (in the Paramount Hotel, 235 W. 46th St. btw. 7th & 8th Aves.). For tickets, click here. Additional destinations on the tour include Los Angeles (May 12-15), Washington, D.C. (May 23), Chicago (May 26), and London (June 7-12).
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