BenDeLaCreme's Inferno A-Go-Go
The RuPaul's Drag Race contestant returns to the Laurie Beechman Theatre for her third and grandest show.
Fourteenth Century Italian literature is an unexpected subject for a drag cabaret act, but then again, one learns to expect the unexpected from BenDeLaCreme. The "terminally delightful" queen from Seattle (real name: Benjamin Putnam) was a dominant force on season six of RuPaul's Drag Race, handily winning the "Snatch Game" challenge with her memorable interpretation of Dame Maggie Smith. Ben brings those same acting chops (and wings and barbecue sauce) to her spectacular new show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, Inferno A-Go-Go, a fabulous modern take on Dante Alighieri's epic poem about hell.
Clad in a bikini of red, yellow, and orange fringe in the opening number, Ben shimmies like Ann-Margret at a clambake, singing, "It's a rockin' beach party without water or fun / Where everybody's invited based on bad things they've done." Playing the Virgil to our Dante, Ben guides us through the nine circles of hell (likened here to the decks of a cruise ship). Along the way, we meet a scruffy border patrol centaur sporting a red "Make Hell Great Again" hat, two gays at an eternal Fire Island tea dance, and the devil himself.
The chameleonic queen plays them all, although you may not believe it at first: Ben's commitment to character is total, encompassing both appearance and vocal inflection. The roles look and sound so radically different, how could this not be the work of several actors? But no, it's all Ben.
In order to create dialogue between her characters, the live Ben chats with prerecorded video projections on the back wall, perfectly timing every line so that it actually sounds like a natural conversation. The videos (seamlessly edited by Shane Wahlund) are high quality, overflowing with sight gags like a playground made out of idle hands. Certainly, they far and away surpass anything I've seen in cabaret (and quite a few shows on Broadway).
In fairness, Inferno A-Go-Go is not a traditional cabaret act, in which a performer cements several songs together with some audience banter. In fact, the songs are few and far between (I counted four), used more to show off clever writing than amazing vocals. Ben's rap lyrics about Malebolges (the "evil ditches" of the eighth circle) are particularly inspired: "This is where those who did fraud will be / So they all got in with a fake ID," she sings to the tune of "Disco Inferno." Rather than an evening of songs and stories, this is something closer to an experimental performance piece that gleefully infuses modern sensibilities with vaudevillian form.
For instance, in exploring the third circle of hell, Ben employs a martini-swilling puppet named "Indulgence Gluttington" that looks at lot like a skeletal version of Wayland Flowers' Madame. On top of being a fierce actor, Ben proves to be a skilled ventriloquist, magically producing coherent in-character sentences without moving her mouth.
Whatever your feelings are about the existence of hell, by the end of this show one thing is clear: BenDeLaCreme is the consummate showgirl and Inferno A-Go-Go is a must-see. Along with her fellow Seattle queen (and RuPaul contestant) Jinkx Monsoon, Ben is helping to redefine what cabaret can be: an intoxicating cocktail of high, low, topical, and timeless. As it says in the bedazzled bible, "a drag queen shall lead them."