It's Sunday afternoon and a heated debate is taking place inside the Maria Benitez Cabaret Theater at the Lodge. It involves the placement of a piece of sheer fabric during one of the acts of the upcoming season of the Jewel Box Cabaret—Santa Fe's own musical variety, burlesque and gender illusion extravaganza.
"Let's do it, homos!" Madame Marie Antoinette Du Barry exclaims. "Flourishes, bitches…big gay arms," she continues.
In character, but out of costume—and with an off-season beard to boot—the sight of Du Barry gallivanting across the stage is surreal. She is joined by cast mates Krisha Licious, Chastity St. Jaymes, Guava Chiffon, "bio queen" Julie Trujillo, Lazr Lenauj and Dexxter.
A run-through of "Booty-licious" follows, with Chiffon at the helm. For it, she dodges her sneakers and opts for some stilettos. Producer Linda Krauss observes methodically from behind a laptop she uses to cue the songs.
After a thrilling and quite unique performance, Krauss express concern over using the troupe members' real identities. The name Taffy Shalamar is thrown around.
Shalamar, real name Cristina Cracraft, is a transsexual music teacher who, amidst scandal over her nighttime performer self, resigned from her post at Gonzales Elementary in March of last year.
Once the cha-cha heels are off, the men behind the glamorous personas have professional backgrounds that range from state workers to scientists. They worry that their involvement with the troupe might haunt them. An agreement to refer to them only by their stage names is reached.
Going on its sixth year, the cabaret represents a labor of love for Krauss and her associates. What started as a one-off project at Rainbow Vision's Starlight Lounge, is now a semi-permanent fixture at the Lodge. For Krauss, the move is a welcome one given Santa Fe's nightlife scene.
"There is nothing like this in New Mexico, especially in Santa Fe," she says. "It appeals to such a diverse crowd; it started out being primarily the gay community and now, it's tourists, straight couples, older couples, birthday parties, you name it."
The result, she says, is a show "with a Las Vegas feel and a Santa Fe edge." The science, she jokes, is in finding just the right amount of edge. "This is Santa Fe, you can't get too Las Vegas because they won't get it."
One thing is clear, call these performers drag queens and you might get a black eye.
"It is a full variety show," Krauss says, adding that she's spent countless time putting together "the right group with the right energy that really works off each other and is not afraid to be theatrical as opposed to this preconceived notion of drag."
Chiffon, the veteran of the group, who has a long-running stint at Frank Marino's La Cage under her sequined belt, agrees.
"Linda's original vision was to really have a variety format show where we featured female impersonation in a classic form," the performer, who moved to Santa Fe to pursue a massage therapy education and never left, says.
She too, thinks of the act as elevating the local after-8 pm scene.
"I think of it as community service," Chiffon says. "It's contributing some content to the scene in Santa Fe."
In jest, she calls the cabaret "the drag show different," and says the key to its success is the bond that ties the performers together.
That sentiment is shared by Du Barry.
"It's really fun working with all my sisters and we're all so special because we're all in each other's lives," the self-described "theatrical Tim Burton weirdo" says.
For Du Barry, gender illusion paved a road of self-expression. "As far as being an effeminate Hispanic man, there was no room for me in my own culture," the native Santa Fean says.
As a young boy, he remembers trying on family members' high heels and dresses. The childhood obsession would further be cemented in grade school, when he heard of the tales of notable women through history.
"That's what I use in my character," Madame says. "I use a lot of historical people, because I draw inspiration from these historical women."
"The masculine/feminine dichotomy of traditional Hispanic households," she says, is also an influencer.
"Though the men are macho, the woman is the grand dame of the house," Du Barry explains. "The dad might say one thing in a Hispanic family, but if the mom isn't happy, you're really screwed."
Sitting close by, Krisha Licious, "the Spanish flavor of the show" nods.
"My mom was your typical, religious Hispanic and now, she's the one giving me these vintage outfits that she wore," she beams. "My mom was a diva in her day."
For St. Jaymes, who has only been doing drag for a year, the art form has also proven to be instrumental in strengthening family ties. "It's been a really fun journey—a really long journey," she says. "My grandparents drive 5-and-a-half hours from Alamogordo to see the show."
Breaking the somber theme, Lazr explains he and Dexxter (both of whom perform as men in the show) are there to add "a dose of masculinity and eroticism.
"Du Barry makes our outfits," he says; "so they're usually just one little strip of something in the front."
"Lazr is an amazing singer-songwriter," Chiffon praises. "He sings live and we're doing backup for him now."
Dexxter's addition was more of an accident. As St. Jaymes' real-life partner, he got asked little by little to participate whenever a boy dancer was needed. "All of a sudden," he says, "I'm a full member and onstage."
The group immediately giggles upon hearing "full member."
Trujillo also came in as guest and never left. For her, the opportunity to join the ranks of the cabaret was a unique one. "I sing a lot around town, but I don't get to sing on a stage," she says.
Having the freedom to experiment with wigs and costumes, she says, adds to her performances. About the only downfall, is being up to snuff given the competition with her cast mates.
"I definitely can't keep up with them glamour wise," she jokes.
Du Barry insists, even in their more over-the-top acts, no disrespect towards the fairer sex is ever intended.
"I think that for all of us, it's important for women to be shown in a really wonderful and fabulous sort of light," she says. "Whether we're biological women, men dressed as women or even men playing men in this show, we all show respect for the female form. Sometimes we get a little floozy, but that's all right."
THE JEWEL BOX CABARET
$10-$20 Saturday, Oct. 26
Maria Benitez Cabaret @The Lodge
750 N St. Francis Drive