Performance artist and drag queen Cherdonna Shinatra crashes her crazy-clown makeup, massive wig and even more massive personality into a version of Ibsen’s infamous play about a stifled wife who walks out on her family.
According to theater lore, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen kept a live scorpion in a beer glass on his writing desk. When it looked sick and sluggish, he’d supposedly throw a berry or piece of fruit in the glass — the scorpion would furiously sting it until it felt better.
Even if that isn’t strictly true, the image is fitting for Ibsen, who wrote “Hedda Gabler,” “The Master Builder,” “A Doll’s House” and other canonical plays about people (usually women) trapped in domestic cages and the emotional poison that can flood neat and tidy households.
In 2017, who better to walk us through a production of “A Doll’s House” than drag queen/performance artist Cherdonna Shinatra (pronounced as a bar-slurry composite of “Cher” plus “Madonna” plus “Sinatra”)?
‘Cherdonna’s Doll’s House’
Through May 15, Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, Seattle; $15-$25 (washingtonensemble.org).
The set at 12th Avenue Arts looks typically Ibsen-esque: wood paneling, wood furniture, piano, Oriental carpet, oil painting on the wall. There’s only one hint that we’re in for something strange: a giant, puffy pink chair just offstage, ringed by a halo of light bulbs. Before the show even begins, the stage looks like Pee-wee Herman is about to crash an episode of “Masterpiece Theatre.”
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Then our host stalks out. Cherdonna, in her signature clownish makeup that is a satire of drag itself (this play is a triple-decker satire sandwich) and a wig that looks like a cresting white tidal wave, wears a neon-green outfit that looks like a cross between a dress and a pantsuit. “Hello! How are you?” she says to the audience in her signature, slightly screechy Cherdonna voice that regular theatergoers in Seattle have come to know and love. “Welcome to my play! This is my fa-vor-ite play!”
Cherdonna is the alter-ego of Jody Kuehner, a dancer and writer as well as a drag queen. The extra twist: she’s a “bio-queen,” meaning she’s a woman who performs as a drag queen.
Kuehner has also straddled different performance worlds in the past few years, from dance to bar-cabaret to experimental theater. Cherdonna is a sui generis creature who belongs nowhere and everywhere, which makes her the perfect, if chaotic, guide to “A Doll’s House.”
Ibsen’s 1879 play tracks the mounting frustrations of Nora, a housewife who breaks the law to save her family, is relentlessly condescended to by her husband and feels generally suffocated. (Infamously, Nora walks out on her family at the end of the play, which infuriated some 19th-century audiences.) While the rest of the actors try to perform “A Doll’s House,” Cherdonna modulates between explaining what’s happening onstage to the audience and launching herself into the middle of the action while the other actors try to accommodate her intrusions and dance along to a few drag-bar standards.
Midway through the play, she shouts to the actors: “Whatcha doing? Can you go faster?” They start to speed up the dialogue. “Faster! Faster!” Cherdonna shouts, and forces the actors to speed-talk and perform multiple scenes at once, exercising a superpower that contemporary Ibsen audiences probably wish they had — a fast-forward button to get to the juicy ending.
Cherdonna is simultaneously our host and a garish ghost haunting the play, then becomes a version of Nora herself, infuriating almost everyone else on the stage. When the male actors start quizzing her about drag, bio-queens and whether she needs any Midol for her PMS, Cherdonna’s version of Ibsen’s play about femininity turns into a kind of memoir about Kuehner’s neither-here-nor-there career identity.
Like I said: triple-decker satire.
The other eight actors, most of them regulars on Seattle stages (including Samie Spring Detzer, Brace Evans and Leah Salcido Pfenning as Nora), all do a creditable job of swinging between a “normal” Ibsen production and Cherdonna’s freakish fever-dream version of herself in the play.
But the real credit goes to Kuehner and director Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir for the concept, and sewing together a compelling Frankenstein’s monster that’s classical theater, drag and a critique of limitations in drag culture all at the same time — using Ibsen, of all people, as their diving board.