Chugging the Holiday Spirits

Who better than Kiki, that battle-scarred veteran of time, to send up the old war-era Christmas show? The World Trade Center and Afghanistan have supplied our floozy chanteusie with plenty to blather about, and she’s so past it—in booze and in life—that she’ll say anything. Lucky us.

Kiki (Justin Bond) and Herb (Kenny Mellman), those downtown icons of beyond-bad taste, are putting on their new holiday extravaganza, There’s a Stranger in the Manger! (Westbeth), among the ashes and holly of this year’s special season. And what a sight they are to make eyes sore. There’s Herb, idiotically beatific in glitter at his white baby grand. And enter Kiki, waving wings of sea-foam green chiffon across her drooping boobs, belting out U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Then, darned if that . . . uh, statuesque broad doesn’t peek under the piano lid for whatever it is she might be “looking for.” Then she’s galloping, daintily shaking a tambourine, to a bracing rendition of “Sleigh Ride.”

In her signature rasp, pitched midway between a strung-out David Bowie and an unraveling Marianne Faithfull, Kiki weaves sidesplitting song medleys that smash together carols like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Come All Ye Faithful” with melodramatic plaints by Dan Fogelberg and Nirvana. An empress among drama queens, Kiki raises the maudlin to high art, her voice quavering and torn with crocodile tears. Herb alternately tinkles the keys or throttles them. He nearly jumps out of his skin shrieking a ghastly “Little Drummer Boy.” By the end, you may feel there are too many songs and some repetition, but the hilarious “encores” ratchet the laugh meter right back up.

Kiki’s between-numbers patter, though, and her inimitable “stage bizness” (blasts of scotch and soda over ice) rarely lag. She twitters manically over a dime-store “bird of peace” (“our special guest, Ladies and Gentlemen, all the way from Jalalabad”) and haphazardly abuses a baby-doll savior: “Don’t go to Bethlehem this year, Baby Jesus!” Her fictional biography, from 1929 on, is, you could say, a scream. Cast into an institution with nothing but a copy of The Little Match Girl, losing her beloved daughter to the Department of Social Services—well, all this has given Kiki a lot of anything-goes wisdom on topics from sex and drugs to suicide. Imitating the politico-sentimental claptrap of showbiz pundits, she lances Bush, Bloomberg, and every brand of hypocrisy you can name. Together, like delirious serial killers clutching daggers and blowing kisses, Kiki and Herb slash the Hallmark holiday picture to give us their own, unique idea of a very merry Christmas. —Francine Russo

The War Comes to DUMBO

A gleamy blonde usher, dressed in perfectly pressed beige, greets the audience of J Mandle Performance’s Return with a few explanatory words. She begins by introducing us to Walter, a senile 84-year-old former airman who returned from World War II only to lose the love of his life. The usher then tosses out a thematic bone for our chomping pleasure: “Does regret give loss a life of its own?” Finally, she informs us that we will be embarking on “a 51-minute journey through time, space, and memory.” The only things missing from her stewardess-like preamble are safety instructions, a rolling mini-bar, and Dramamine.

Guided by our flashlight-waving hostess, the audience for Julia Mandle’s dance theater collage moves from one duskily enigmatic installation to the next—quite a hike when you’re inside Gale Gates’s cavernous DUMBO loft space. While it’s clear that we’re viewing Walter at various points in time (Layard Thompson plays the young veteran in his amorous postwar days, Nathan Whiting in decrepit old age), the gracefully choreographed images don’t so much convey the narrative as superficially aestheticize it. Style, as is typical at Gale Gates, squelches substance.

Only the outline of Walter’s story is discernible in Mandle’s treatment; the scenic details never really jibe with the interpretive spin carefully laid out at the beginning of the trip. For one thing, Thompson’s angelic beauty contains no sign of the psychic fallout of war; he’s about as haunted a figure as a model in a Ralph Lauren ad. Nowhere do we get the impression of a man who has spent years flying around in an unheated B-24 bomber, where “the oxygen mask often froze to the wearer’s face” and the lack of facilities turned the nightly missions into bathroom torture.

As a consequence of her failure to embrace the real hardships of Walter’s situation, sentimentality creeps into Mandle’s palette. For example, the red muslin that’s pulled from beneath Thompson’s jacket during his love scenes seems too Hallmark-y a choice for a character caught in the grip of post-combat survival. Clichés, romantic and otherwise, go unchallenged—even Whiting’s slovenly, pajama-clad portrait of Alzheimer’s has a TV-movie-of-the-week effortfulness to it. At the end, when the two men join hands in the far-off horizon, it’s hard not to sulk at the banality.

The piece works best as a kind of exercise in environmental staging, where the luxury of vast theater space blurs into interior territory. Though the resonance between plot and movement remains weak, Return signals the hope that artists at Gale Gates are at least groping toward dramatic contexts worthy of the theater’s multimedia largesse. —Charles McNulty

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