Last night at On the Boards, Jody Kuehner, as her drag persona Cherdonna Shinatra, winner of a Stranger Genius Award in 2015, premiered the conclusion of her three-part cross-genre clownsplosion of a show. This one is entitled Kissing Like Babies: Part III of one great, bright, brittle alltogetherness. Kuehner's feminism and interest in femme expression drive this ambitious, messy, and glittering suite of performances. In Kissing Like Babies, she hones in on the patriarchy's most disturbing aspect: the sexualization of girls and the infantilization of women.
In this work, Cherdonna's supposed to be playing a baby, but that's hard to remember considering her decision to do the whole show in the buff—bush out, boobs out, and a bonnet on top. The projections on the bright pink backdrop are spilled milk, but they're also come. She's holding an oversized baby bottle, but it's clearly a giant phallic symbol. She gets tangled and then wrapped up in a jump rope, but once she's on the ground like that and struggling to move her limbs, it looks like bondage.
Because of the other performers onstage—a couple in bunny rabbit suits, a live marching band, and six female dancers—and because of Cherdonna's trademark social awkwardness, the juxtaposition of childlike imagery with sexual imagery doesn't read immediately as pedo or kink. It reads as cartoon. By playing so extremely into society's expectations of women (namely that they must be both innocent and yet sexually experienced; submissive and yielding yet also capable of running a household, etc.), she reveals those expectations to be the idiotically impossible demands that they are and have always been.
Those demands are enforced in various ways throughout the show, including through the disembodied voice of a man telling her she cannot do certain things, and in the social pressure exerted by her chattering backup dancers, who come across as bratty toddlers at one moment, and perky cheerleaders the next.
Judging by several exclamations of "woop!" and "yes!" that I heard from people in the audience, and also judging by moments of total and uncomfortable silence during creepy parts, this bid to undermine the patriarchy by shoving a baby bottle down its throat resonated widely.
Though I was laughing loudly at strange times and sitting in uncomfortable silence at other times, along with everyone else, I was also waiting for the show to make a turn that never quite arrived. I kept hoping there would be a move in the spectacle that cut through the cartoon shield and really forced the audience to confront the horror of the world she was embodying, a moment when we stopped laughing at the clown and the clown started laughing at us.
It would have served the show if the moments of sadness had gotten darker, or if the audience interactions were forced to more of a crisis. That didn't really happen, except for a brief, powerful moment when she walked up the aisle, chatted up a guy in the audience, and pointed to the seat next to him. She asked if she could sit next to him sometime. She asked him if they could get a snack together sometime. She asked him what his zodiac sign was. And then she asked, out of nowhere, "Will you suck my dick?" This bit accurately and hilariously flipped the script on a scene so many women describe: that moment when they're engaging in an normal conversation with a guy and then he pivots into obscene misogynistic bullying.
There was fascinating, impressive dancing throughout the show, in addition to the comedy and the brightly colored creepiness. The kick lines were incredible, as was the level of coordination and strength displayed by the six bow-headed baby-women backup dancers, who moved as a human pyramid whenever they weren't linked at the arms doing kicks. The marching band was masked and blank-faced, and upheld a masculine aspect of passivity and non-communication even as she begged them for a response.
I've never seen anything like Kissing Like Babies, and I was completely rapt. I don't think I've laughed harder this year than I did while watching Cherdonna trying to jump a Double Dutch rope solo. Ultimately I recommend you see it. I just hope that—strange as it may sound—she makes it even stranger, and sadder, when you see it.