Theater archives

Our American Cussin’


At 71, there aren’t many tragedies that Kiki hasn’t been through at least twice. A tough-as-leather female vocalist, she’s never been successful enough to warrant the manic, Anita O’Day-ish insistence with which she bears down on audiences. Tact for her is describing accompanist Herb as a “70-year-old Jew-tard,” or covering Shona Liang’s “Glad I’m Not a Kennedy” the moment JFK Jr.’s plane goes down. She’s lost a child to a drowning accident on the French Riviera, and nearly drowned herself in scotch. Kiki is, of course, the alter ego of Justin Bond, and Herb is musical director Kenny Melman. For the last several years, the two have developed their lounge act parody Kiki and Herb from an amusing sideshow at Flamingo East to a work of performance art and cultural muck-trawling of national importance.

Anyone who witnessed Bond’s Obie-winning stint as Kiki in last winter’s Christmas show Jesus Wept saw the two of them kick over limits and boundaries of all sorts—theatrical, political, artistic, blood-alcohol level—then stomp upon them with passion and verve. Bond inhabits Kiki so thoroughly one wonders whether it isn’t vice versa.

They begin their new show, Stop, Drop, and Roll, with intimidating aggression. Herb, less stage-shy these days, pounds the piano as if it were an 88-stringed electric guitar, and responds to Kiki’s voice, which first resembles a foghorn, then a nearly atonal rasp. Kiki mixes David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” with Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away,” then launches into a version of Pat Benatar’s “Fire and Ice,” adding siren sounds and screeching the word “fire” during the coda. In the brief subsequent pause, she comments on how satisfying (and illegal) it is to be able to shout “fire” in a crowded bar.

No reviewer is ever going to capture what this act is really like. Kiki’s freely improvised monologues meander so far, so quickly, and so intricately that their point is rapidly lost. As background information and personal mythology accumulate from show to show, it appears that there’s only one massive Kiki and Herb show, of which each set is just a fraction. The musical direction, as evidenced by some of the choices above, combines several radio station formats on top of one another. It’s a little like listening to everything on Napster at once, filtered through the sensibility of an East Village gay man: Kiki and Herb’s canny repertoire ranges from Suicidal Tendencies rants to ’60s-lite music like “Cherish.” The duo’s skill as curators of pop music and history has solidified their reputation among rock critics, always game to identify a song about British actress Charlotte Rampling or follow a pointless tale about a manic-depressive Stones groupie. You’ll never get it all, or sort it all out. You feel, as Roger Waters put it, “the warm thrill of confusion, that space cadet glow.”

Naturally, Stop, Drop, and Roll‘s aggression can’t be sustained, even by a performer with as much stamina as Bond. But where the average lounge act parody would sink into self-indulgence once it shot its wad, Kiki and Herb rest on a strange plateau: Over the course of two hours, their gift for overstatement pushes them closer and closer to becoming the act they’re lampooning. Whether they aspire to be 70-year-old alcoholic has-beens is a question only they can answer. I guess we’ll know in another 40 years.

A different Kiki, Kiki Smith, designed the costumes for the Talking Band’s Bitterroot, a show whose charms extend only slightly beyond her exquisite haberdashery. The Talking Band are Open Theater vets enjoying their 27th season. Given the generation gap, and the fact that downtown directors do more fundraising than cross-pollination these days, there’s no reason they’d care that Bitterroot bears a resemblance to Richard Maxwell’s 1999 show Cowboys and Indians.

Both are essentially musicals about 19th-century American explorers. Maxwell and Jim Strahs adapted Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail, a Midwest high school reading-list classic about Parkman’s abortive journey. In writer-director Paul Zimet’s Bitterroot, Harold, the artistic director of the troupe that performed Our American Cousin on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, tries to save drama’s tarnished reputation by writing The Garden of the West, a musical that glorifies Lewis and Clark’s journey to the Pacific.

Not enough pleasure is taken in this clever metastory; The Garden of the West overwhelms the backstage drama. This musical within a musical—perhaps intentionally, à la Maxwell—is a real bore, consisting mostly of limp pop songs whose lyrics are bogged down with packing lists: “25 axes, three bushels of salt, mosquito netting,” and so on. Bitterroot uses nontraditional casting to subvert various archetypes and historical figures, pushing sweet but clumsy points about multiculturalism. At times the staging is delightful and the actors engaging, but that it all adds up to a metaphor for the nomadic thespian life is a bit of a groaner. “We are artists and explorers,” Harold sums up. “We do it because we are fearless and crazy.” We’d believe him if Bitterroot were brave and delirious.