BenDeLaCreme Finds Modern Relevance in Dante’s Inferno

The Seattle drag scene may be large and wide, but few have plumbed its glittery depths quite as deeply as BenDeLaCreme, who has been making work in and around this arena for the last decade. DeLaCreme, who rose to fame on reality tv show RuPaul’s Drag Race and is known locally for her work in the annual Seattle productions Homo for the Holidays and Freedom Fantasia, also excels as a solo artist. Her third solo show, Inferno A-Go-Go, is expectedly hilarious and raunchy, yet is also surprisingly touching and wide-ranging in its subject matter.

Inferno3 Matt Baume
Photo by Matt Baume

 Inferno A-Go-Go is a dragtastic theatrical exploration of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, which details the many specific torments to which one might be subjected in the nine circles of hell. In DeLaCreme’s version of the classic, each anguish is updated with a contemporary and often political twist. Despite the constant stream of jokes and the larger-than-life musical numbers, DeLaCreme does not shy away from the emotionally weighty content of the source material. Rather, she taps into the hyperbolic expression of frustrated desperation permeating many of today’s left-leaning political discussions and uses it to great effect in both the light-hearted and the serious, even sad, sections of the show.

DeLaCreme is, impeccably, a sharp editor of her work. Each parody song is tightly written, each dirty joke murmured slyly at rapid-fire speed, and each dance move choreographed to showcase specificity of movement and clear shapes. Drag queens are not generally known for their demonstrations of dance technique, but DeLaCreme moves with remarkable skill and ease on 6-inch platform stilettos, skipping and frolicking smoothly across the stage and at one point accomplishing a genuinely impressive running man. In perhaps the funniest physical comedy bit of the show, she re-creates the dance cliché of a blue fabric river flapping in waves across the stage as she throws herself bodily back and forth through it, flailing dramatically to music by Styx.

Inferno4 Jason Russo
Photo by Jason Russo

In addition to DeLaCreme’s live solo performance as Ben, cruise ship tourist of hell’s many levels, Inferno A-Go-Go incorporates puppetry and video. She appears on a screen at the back of the stage as at least six different characters over the course of the evening. During one section she appears as the three Furies and then as a kaleidoscopic chorus of them, creating a slinky ode to the dancing of Motown girl groups using technologically-assisted unison of her digital selves.

DeLaCreme uses two ventriloquism puppets in similar ways to very different effect. In the first, a skull named Indulgence Gluttington in a sparkly aqua dressing gown gleefully screeches an invitation to her own circle of hell. The second puppet is a Seussian, befeathered harpy who plays tour guide. This is the moment at which we realize Inferno A-Go-Go is more than just a satirical romp. Harpy tells Ben that the people who commit suicide have been damned to exist forever as scrappy trees in the forest surrounding them, and the audience begins to understand how morally wrong the rules are to those who are in hell–both within the Inferno and in our own world. It is certainly the most deeply felt moment of the entire show, with an open emotional honesty not previously shown.

Inferno1 Matt Baume
Photo By Matt Baume

The evening becomes more and more political as it goes on, with not-so-veiled references to Donald Trump supporters, racial injustice, gun violence, homophobia, and misogyny. These elements and more are understood to create the hell we live in and can’t control, but near the end DeLaCreme shifts gears to focus on the hell we make for ourselves. The heavy-handed commentary actually works well in the medium of a drag show, when it might feel too “on the nose” in a more traditional theater or dance show. Because the level of camp is already so over-the-top, the political near-sermonizing doesn’t feel overblown in this context.

During a rap-influenced song about the Malebolges, an island in hell over which the Devil himself presides, DeLaCreme sings, “It’s pretty easy to empathize, ‘cause that’s what drag queens do with our lives.” And indeed, one wonders if the constant practice of physically embodying others in her drag persona has led DeLaCreme to further psychologically relate to their perspective as an artist. Her physical and verbal performance is strikingly different in each of the many characters she portrays throughout the show, indicating the significant physical research and thought she has put into each one.

Inferno5 Jason Russo
Photo by Jason Russo

These big-personality caricatures, improbable alignments of 14th century epic poetry with contemporary societal ills, and smooth integration of varied production elements, brought to life by DeLaCreme’s enthusiastic and clever performance, combine to make Inferno A-Go-Go the most unique drag show you are likely to see this year, and certainly one of the most entertaining experimental one-person shows around. -Faith Coben

BenDeLaCreme’s Inferno A-Go-Go premiered at the Laurie Beechman Theater in New York and runs at Oddfellows West Hall in Seattle through October 1st, 2016. Tickets available at www.strangertickets.com/Browse#search=inferno.