When boozy lounge lizard Kiki reels into a room, she's this close to a nervous breakdown. Kiki now appearing in Do You Hear What We Hear? at P.S. 122 is the damaged alter ego of Justin Bond, and her entrance is merely the beginning of trouble. Theater of boundaries this isn't. Kiki likes the ear-perforating volume of her voice. She's been onstage most of her 66 years, and accompanist Herb (Kenny Mellman) has tickled the ivories beside her since they met in "the institution" for, well, misfits . . . but that's another story. In their act, Herb is the Paul Shaffer brick wall against which Kiki's derailed train comes to rest.
What seems at first a send-up of Liza Minnelli hysteria the kind we've seen from male and female drag queens alike, with visits to alcoholism, drug addiction, and painful marriages slyly changes course. Twelve-step clichés snake into thorny observations, rueful irony outweighs the corn. "I just want you to be happy," Kiki blubbers one moment, and the next awakes to ponder existential tension: "Why can't we make ourselves comfortable?"
Addled Kiki is, but not a fool. Life's brevity beats a tattoo through her set, the comedy refusing to reassure. "Perhaps you're contemplating suicide right now," she lightly inquires, and in another interval finds herself quoting Yeats, "Surely the second coming is at hand." Daughter Coco, we're told, drowned while Mom was belowdecks fucking her boxer husband: "Ladies and gentlemen, where can a kid go on a boat?" A kind of Gump with Joan Crawford's vibrato, Kiki gave Lillian Hellman the line about not cutting her politics to fit the day's fashion, and during the '60s she was engaged to Dick Gregory. One really bad regret: "The day John Hinckley missed."
Bond and Mellman met in San Francisco, are in their thirties, have worked together for eight years, and have developed a following playing weekly at Flamingo East. Bond is beautiful, with a Kim Novak wash across his long face and blond hair swept into a ponytail. Over lunch, he says he was told to "butch up" at Adelphi College. He ditched acting until discovering Kate Bornstein's theater of "gender disruption," playing the lead in Herculine Barbin, about the true hermaphrodite Foucault chronicled. Mellman, who is lanky and absurdly youthful to be embodying ancient Herb, describes himself as "an L.A. valley boy." When he and Bond met, he was studying music composition at UC Berkeley, living in the Castro, and doing political street theater.
"The bitter evening that Kiki was born I was feeling unappreciated," recalls Bond. "I was working in rock clubs, doing glam-noir drag, inspired by Ida Lupino and Julie London, very cool and minimalist, and I was being ignored. I didn't consider myself a drag artist, rather a man wearing a dress. But Kiki was a woman. I decided to do messy, fucked-up trash drag, turn the audience's condescension into terror." Mellman was present and ducked out the door "I couldn't stand the anxiety." But in '93, after the San Francisco gay pride march, they resurrected the old girl, invented codependent Herb, and began exploring characters who both repelled and fascinated them. "These people would package any emotion as a lead-in to a song. They only feel alive onstage," says Bond.
The Christmas show is their favorite of the year, "the extra high that leads to an extra low," quips Mellman. Rather than schmaltzing up their repertoire with pop standards from the likes of Rosemary Clooney or Eartha Kitt, the pair cull from Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and even "the rap," as Kiki calls it. "For Kiki and Herb, all sentiment's concocted," notes Bond. "They throw in Easter songs." He drops into Kiki's husky register: "It's the same to us, we're just doing all our Jesus material."