"SEPARATE but equal" may not fly as far as our nation's educational system is concerned, but it's working out fine for Dito van Reigersberg and his alter ego, Martha Graham Cracker.
Van Reigersberg, 40, is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Philly's acclaimed Pig Iron Theatre. Martha Graham Cracker is the drag queen he has portrayed, mostly in cabaret shows, for the past eight years.
And, it appears, never will the twain meet.
"It's different," said van Reigersberg during a recent chat. "I've always kept them separate. What I think is beautiful about the way Pig Iron works is there's a lot of cooperation, a lot of work as an ensemble. We're all working together to create a play. The ensemble approach is really exciting, but you are fitting yourself into a larger group. With Martha, I have more permission to be more of a diva, to be selfish and self-indulgent."
Martha struts her stuff primarily at second-Thursday cabarets staged at L'Etage, above Creperie Beau Monde, in Queen Village. Saturday, she has a sold-out gig at Johnny Brenda's, in Fishtown.
"I guess because Martha's so improvised each night, a lot of it is how I bounce off people in the audience," Dito/Martha said. "I feel I use a lot of the skills I have from acting schools, playing off the audience. Martha's more of a chance for me to get out my raw, improvisational side."
Although we shouldn't expect to see Martha in any forthcoming Pig Iron productions, it's not as if she's totally removed from the local theater realm. Last month, van Reigersberg admitted, she "kind of took over the main role," as the mother of a murderous first-grade girl, in a reading of "The Bad Seed" staged by the gay-and-transgender-centric Mauckingbird Theatre Company.
And in the fall of 2014, Pig Iron will mount a production whose current working title is "I Promised Myself to Live Faster."
According to the 6-foot-4 Northern Virginia native, the play is based on the life of Charles Ludlam, whose claim to fame - other than authoring "The Mystery of Irma Vep," which lampoons the gothic-horror genre - was performing as the title character in the early-20th-century melodrama "Camille," which famously ends with the heroine dying of tuberculosis.
"He would play the role with chest hair and ringlets and a beautiful gown," van Reigersberg explained. "He's famous for making people laugh for most of the play, then turning around and having everyone crying at the end."
Van Reigersberg began doing drag while an acting student at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse. He developed the Martha character while singing occasionally with the Brothers Suggarillo, which includes his keyboardist/manager, Philly mag writer Victor Fiorillo.
In 2005, L'Etage invited the act to create the cabaret program that has become a local show-biz institution. And one that's being imported to Manhattan; Martha has booked her second gig at Joe's Pub, in Gotham, on April 6.
So, it looks like Van Reigersberg will continue to lead his double life for the foreseeable future.
"So far," he said, "keeping [his two worlds apart] has been a nice balance in my life, between when I'm part of a larger group and when I'm the person [to whom] everyone is looking to take us from the beginning to the end. Martha's my place where I get to vent my diva's tendencies."
'Raisin' a treat at Arden
The paradox of acting is that the best acting is that which doesn't seem like acting at all. Case in point: "A Raisin in the Sun," which opened Wednesday at the F. Otto Haas Stage at Old City's Arden Theatre Co. It runs through April 21.
The ensemble that populates Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1950s play about a working class African- American family in Chicago collectively boasts a naturalistic quality that powers the comedy-drama's first local staging in about 25 years.
The ensemble's work is powerful, moving, and most of all, real. Kudos to Joliet F. Harris as Lena Younger, the wise and loving matriarch of the family, as well as the actor known simply as U.R. for his turn as Walter Younger, whose reach for a better life exceeds his grasp. Also praiseworthy is Jaleesa Capri as a protofeminist, aspiring medical student, a character that must have seemed downright bizarre back in the day.
Of course, the cast has theatrical gold to work with here. The play, whose most prominent plot point is the family's plan to integrate an all-white neighborhood, may be set in a time when words like "Negro" and "colored" were coin of the realm, but its themes of familial love, the hopes we all have for a better tomorrow, the nature of prejudice and the minutiae of family dynamics are timeless and universal.
And the script's hopscotching between sitcomish one-liners (which usually hit their mark) and tense drama (as opposed to melodrama, of which there is very little) is never less than deft.
Throw in Walter Dallas' unobtrusive direction and an ultrarealistic stage by Daniel Conway that expertly captures a big-city tenement of the mid-20th century, and you have a special night of theater.
Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St., through April 21, showtimes vary, $48-$29, $15 teens, 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.
On Twitter: @chuckdarrow