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When drag is a drag

FringeArts presents Cherdonna Shinatra’s Clock That Mug or Dusted’

In
4 minute read
Jody Kuehner's Cherdonna Shinatra turned out to be a hot mess — figuratively and literally. (Photo courtesy of FringeArts.)
Jody Kuehner's Cherdonna Shinatra turned out to be a hot mess — figuratively and literally. (Photo courtesy of FringeArts.)

When I heard that FringeArts had Jody Kuehner, a.k.a, Cherdonna Shinatra, Seattle’s "female impersonator impersonator” par excellence, on its schedule last weekend, I bid on reviewing it and did my homework. I like theater that ignites me with terror, sorrow, even exultant awe. Leaving a show with mere happiness means I probably won’t give it much more thought.

I’d never seen Kuehner before, but she’s danced with major choreographers including Pat Graney and Mark Haim, whose admirable works tell stories full of challenging imagery and mystery. That alone gives her some serious cred.

When I read that Kuehner’s show, Clock That Mug or Dusted, “is a conceptual and inspirational homage to feminist performance artists [like] Anna Halprin,” I was hooked. I am writing a piece about Jews and Jewishness in dance, and Halprin, who lived and worked on the West Coast, is not so well known to contemporary audiences here. I only saw her dance once in San Francisco and she was 82 then. I looked forward to any references to her work I could glean from Kuehner’s performance.

Upending expectations

Cherdonna began by playing peek-a-boo with the audience from behind a giant muslin doll puppet, setting up the child’s play to come; the audience responded with appropriate giggles. Once she was onstage, we saw a mishmash of Belle Époque topknot wig, soft ballet slippers, and a shapely female body encased in a skintight white jumpsuit who, by her mincing steps, somehow evoked a geisha.

One perky breast peeked out from behind a teardrop opening on the right side of her costume, while on the left a peachy butt cheek was exposed. The white suit may have vaguely referenced Halprin, but I saw little more except ideas about performance, identity, and her work with food in a communal, 1960s way.

Of course, Kuehner also referenced (peeked at?) Rachel Rosenthal and Karen Finley (she of the smeared chocolate and feathers), as well as Paul McCarthy, who used smearing, mud, and puppetry in his work.

For an hour, Cherdonna, in exaggerated, clownish makeup, piped out barely intelligible commentary. One repeated line, “I’m not trying to be mean,” could also have been heard as “I’m not trying to be me.”

What happened?

She lured an audience member onstage and smeared peanut butter on the woman’s palms, before slicing a banana onto them and sandwiching her hands together. Next, she hilariously tried to auto-smear and slice a banana onto her own hands, assuring the audience member, “Don’t worry, I’ll join you.”

Cherdonna Shinatra creator Jody Kuehner in her everyday drag. (Photo via etsy.com.)
Cherdonna Shinatra creator Jody Kuehner in her everyday drag. (Photo via etsy.com.)

She couldn’t slice the banana with one hand, so she asked the audience member to open her mouth. Cherdonna stuck the banana inside the woman’s mouth and proceeded to slice it into her own palm. Eventually, they each ate their “sandwich” and she released the woman to an aide who helped her clean up.

After explaining she knows ballet and all the positions, Cherdonna removed her spotless slippers and put them safely off to the side, but did not dance. Perhaps in her own interpretation of object theater, she drolly pulled onstage one piece of detritus after another until she filled it with junk. She then covered herself in multicolored goop from squeeze bottles until she looked like a Jackson Pollock canvas.

With the abandon of a child set free to play in the mud, she squirted goop into a stiletto-heeled shoe, squeezed her foot into it like one of Cinderella’s stepsisters, fist-fucked a melon, and stomped a tomato, all as if deconstructing an Arcimboldo painting.

But once Cherdonna sat silently and motionlessly amid the mess, I began to find the piece indigestible. The audience was now utterly quiet, waiting for something to happen. It didn’t.

All was entropy, an utter devolution to what you could interpret as anything from a drunken stupor, to exhaustion, to a bipolar breakdown. Finally, Cherdonna fled the stage and did not return for a bow. The audience waited, then exited.

Was she too embarrassed, too exhausted to come back out?

I was left with many more questions. Were we looking at a new form of minstrelsy — a vicious caricature of straight women or of male female impersonators? Again, in this world of ambiguity in which we live, could you construe this as misogyny? I don’t know the answer, and judging by Kuehner’s unsettling sudden exit, I suspect she’s still struggling with those questions, too.

What, When, Where

Clock That Mug or Dusted. By Jody Kuehner. February 22-24, 2018, at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia. (215) 413-9006 or fringearts.com.

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