Opera, drag, and pure electricity

Philly Fringe 2019: Blythely Oratonio and company at Late Night Snacks

3 minute read
The best of drag and opera: John Jarboe and Stephanie Blythe (as Blythely Oratonio) at Late Night Snacks. (Photo by Johanna Austin;
The best of drag and opera: John Jarboe and Stephanie Blythe (as Blythely Oratonio) at Late Night Snacks. (Photo by Johanna Austin;

In honor of the Fringe Festival’s Late Night Snacks series, internationally renowned mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe reprised her character of Blythely Oratonio, a crass and not-so-humble tenor—this time holding the cultured class hostage in the manner of a tell-all show gone rogue. Staged in a retrofitted auto-repair shop in South Philly with opening acts by Sapphira Crystal and John Jarboe, Oratonio’s performance blended the best of drag and opera.

“Oratonio to the stage”

While I could pontificate on the layers of meaning, let me first say that this production was well-executed, impeccably designed, and a model for any and all future medleys.

Kudos should be given to the house band, lovingly referred to as “The Fluffers,” for providing balanced, yet still emotive backing music. It was the glue that held the whole thing together.

The subjects included overly sexual tenors, the existential crisis of a Twitter-accompanied bowel movement in the age of a burning Amazon, the tedium of recitatives and “holding sopranos as they expire,” bullying, and the triumph of transition in the face unrealized dreams. Oratonio’s performance had it all.

His execution was always spot on, seamlessly switching between classic-rock anthems, arias, and comedic monologues. I was at the edge of my seat unable to guess what would happen next, entirely at the mercy of Oratonio’s clarion voice and raunchy gesticulation.

We are the champions

I felt deeply enriched watching the veil of grace being lifted to reveal the crude and sexualizing gaze of opera turned in on itself. Despite the occasional darkness, I often found myself laughing hysterically. A true testament to his masterful stage presence and fine writing.

Throughout the show there were several simply outstanding, utterly surreal moments. Singing We Are the Champions alongside one of the greatest vocal talents of my lifetime had me utterly giddy. But this was soon to be topped by a gorgeous and glamorous drag duet to close out the show.

Martha Graham Cracker with the voice of a sweet, sweet country devil and an outfit best described as prom-chic, came out from the dressing room to rekindle her romance with our fallen yet content Oratonio. The result was pure electricity: an audience clamoring for more in awe of the dramatic power shown before us.

Where the flame gets sublimely close: Messapotamia Lefae and her camper. (Photo by Johanna Austin,
Where the flame gets sublimely close: Messapotamia Lefae and her camper. (Photo by Johanna Austin,

Snack attack

Serving as aperitifs for the evening were host John Jarboe and Sapphira Crystal, who, while fine performers, never offered anything particularly interesting.

I’m sure most people appreciated the 20-plus minutes of lip-sync artistry, and while it did look physically impressive and somewhat creative, my mind kept going to college football.

John Jarboe’s outfit was spectacular; museum-worthy. I would have never thought to use kawaii sticker rolls to make a wig. His voice is expressive and quite beautiful; I just wish he chose a piece that wasn’t so derivative. But this might be a larger problem of cabaret in general, one these performers shouldn’t be maligned for.

Where time dissolved

In the afterglow of Blythley’s performance, Messapotamia Lefae summoned me for a lip-sync routine within the cramped confines of her trailer. There was shadow-puppetry projection, exquisite dance, and a lighter dangerously close to her face illuminating increasingly strange expressions as she drew ever closer. It could have been two minutes or 10—it was as if time itself dissolved. This was free-associational performance art that I’m still trying to figure out. Truly sublime. A perfect nightcap to a proudly unruly show.

What, When, Where

Late Night Snacks, featuring Blythely Oratonio, Saphirra Crystal, Martha Graham Cracker, and John Jarboe on Saturday, September 14 and Sunday, September 15, 2019 at 1316 Percy Street, Philadelphia. Late Night Snacks runs through September 29, 2019. Find the full schedule online. Tickets to Messy’s lip-sync camper are available at the bar.

Late Night Snacks is wheelchair-accessible. Messy’s camper is not.

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