I don’t often search out news on any of the RuPaul’s Drag Race queens. I’ve watched a few of the seasons, and I’m very glad that I was able to discover some of the great talents that the show has brought to larger attention, but I’m not exactly what you would call a fan. You never really get to see them performing the way they would “in the wild” – the challenges and activities are contrived and meant to make interesting television viewing, not give you a real sense of a drag performer’s talents. And in constructing the show’s narrative, you may not get a full or accurate sense of a performer’s true stage persona let along get to know them as human beings.
In the seasons that I’ve watched (seasons 2-6 as these were the ones that I’ve found for free on Netflix or Prime Video when I’ve been randomly scanning), BenDeLaCreme was someone that I generally liked but never emerged as one of my favorites. I thought she was a little quirky, but didn’t have the same offbeat charm that I’d seen from competitors like Pandora Boxx or Milk or Jinx Monsoon. She was a little bit glam, a little bit comedy, a little bit theatre queen – all good things, but a strange mishmash that, combined with the peculiarities of editing, just didn’t leave me hungering for more. Well Champagne Dreamers, I just found my appetite.
One day when I was off surfing the webs, I stumbled across THIS ARTICLE about BenDeLaCreme’s one-queen show, Inferno-A-Go-Go. Friends had been posting all about the drama with PhiPhi O’Hara and All Stars 2, so when I saw the title I went to it to see if there was more dirt there. Ben did throw a little shade the show’s way:
“Take another look. Those TV producers are willing to ruin friendships, professional relationships, feelings of self-worth—all for some cheap entertainment. You won’t remember the details of that episode in a week. Those queens may have to work through that experience for years. I’m grateful for the experience I had [on season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race], but I’ve already been through hell in my new show—I don’t need to go through it on theirs.”
But most of the article was about his third stage show, which is based on Dante’s Inferno. A little light reading to go along with your drag entertainment? An odd combination to be sure, but I was intrigued. When I saw that the show dates lined up perfectly with my trip to Seattle for work, I knew it was time to put on some fabulous accessories and take a trip to hell with this outrageous queen.
As I sat down, I looked around at the venue – somewhere between an old high school gymnasium and a dance studio, the stage was bare except for a projection screen, some black curtains, and a mic stand. There was a small VIP section in the front with round tables and gift bags, and then the rest of us trash sat in rows of chairs, probably room for 150 or so total. It was general admission and I was glad I got there early; I was able to snag myself a seat on the end. Soon two women approached and asked if they could have the two seats next to me. Mary, the woman next to me, was already half in the bag and her friend (Sheryl maybe? It was too loud to hear what she said, and I wasn’t really invested enough to ask for clarification) sat next to her looking like her patience may have been wearing thin. We talked a little bit; when possibly-Sheryl found out that I was from North Dakota, she was flabbergasted. She couldn’t believe that people actually, you know, lived there. Mary is a sonogram tech and possibly-Sheryl is a broker; Mary said that she was out tonight because she was mad at her husband and she can do what she wants. Despite the drinks in their hands and the obvious pre-party, they both seemed rather uptight. Somehow I managed to get myself seated next to the only two people who were determined not to have a good time.
Everyone else was on board, and before long BenDeLaCreme took to the stage and invited the audience to go with her on a trip to Hell, using Dante’s Inferno as a guide. She warned the crowd that this was not going to be the typical drag show with lip-syncing to popular divas like Cher and Madonna and proceeded to shimmy and shake in a fringed outfit to the “titular” song, “Inferno-A-Go-Go” (and yes, she did use that zingy pun). From there, the trip continued for just over 60 minutes of singing, dancing, video, puppetry, and clever wordplay.
One of the challenges of a one-person show is how you might incorporate other voices or perspectives; though there was only one queen masterminding the whole experience, she used the puppets as well as video segments to play a wide range of characters including a smarmy cruise director with flaming eyes, a pair of “sodomites,” a Messenger from Heaven who would make Regina George look like a Peace Corp volunteer, the Furies, a Redneck Centaur who was obviously patterned off the worst of the Trump supporters, and even Satan himself. The sodomites were especially funny: one was dark-haired and chirpy, everything was “fabulous!” and “fierce” and delightfully swishy; the other was a spray-tanned bitter queen vogue-ing ridiculously while making snipey comments. The Furies were actually multiple images of BenDeLaCreme in a Medusa-inspired headpiece and a sequined gown, cycling through the video in a very trippy montage before being blasted to pieces by the Messenger.
The show was hilarious, but had some depth to it (and not just because we were descending into Hades). With the Redneck Centaur, BenDeLaCreme did a fantastic job of explaining why “All Lives Matter” is actually a really stupid and offensive thing to say in whiplash dialogue that was funny and snarky, and absolutely true. In the most poignant moment of the show, BenDeLaCreme meets a Harpy, one of the guardians of the sixth level of hell where the suicides are sent to become silent trees for their eternity, and one of two beautifully crafted puppets in the show. The Harpy sounds like a crabby old New Yorker, but softens when she talks about her charges. “What did these people ever do besides live in a world that was too hard. They did nothin’.” That’s not an exact quote, but it’s in the spirit of the segment, and it was truly touching. As the two are talking, BenDeLaCreme reflects on an earlier stop along the tour where the heretics were being tortured. All because someone was in charge and they didn’t agree. It was a funny moment at the time, but in that grove of despair it wasn’t funny any longer. Ben allowed the silence to hang perfectly, and the audience was pin-drop silent, except for the occasional sniffle.
After traveling through the malebulges (10 ditches where different perpetrators of fraud are housed), she finally emerges into the 9th level of hell and speaks to Satan in a scene heavily influenced by the classic Wizard of Oz. I won’t tell you exactly who or what was waiting there behind the curtain, and though the ending does feel just a little bit forced it brings the show to a satisfying conclusion.
As the crowd rose for a standing ovation, Mary and possibly-Sheryl snuck past me to make a hasty exit. Maybe Mary had decided to reconcile with her husband (or at least have sloppy makeup sex), perhaps it was past their bedtimes, or perhaps they just don’t appreciate the slandering of centaurs’ reputations. Whatever it was, they slunk out while everyone else applauded and no one was sad to see them go. The rest of us had taken a journey to Hell, and it was positively Heavenly.
Tags: All Lives Matter, Angel, Black Lives Matter, Centaur, Champagne Dreams Productions, Charon, damnation, Dante, Dante's Inferno, Donald Trump, drag art, drag king, drag performance, drag queen, drag show, drag troupe, Furies, Hades, Harpy, hell, Inferno, Inferno A Go Go, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Levels of Hell, Miss Jaye, Oddfellows, Religion, River Styx, Seattle, Suicides, West Hall, World of Champagne