Over the past 20-some years, I've spent a good amount of time observing drag queens, cheering them on and shoving more than few hard-earned dollars down their tissue-stuffed brassieres. When my very liberal older sister eloped to Vegas in the early '80s, the only attendees at her vodka-soaked, post-nuptial bridal shower were the happy couple, yours truly (then 11 years old) and a posse of drag queens in full regalia. I've put in my time at Trannyshack, Midnight Mass and Aunt Charlie's. Hell, I'm not ashamed to admit that I, like many inebriated gay men at Halloween, have even donned a beat-up wig myself.
The reason I share this information is because, while I don't proclaim to be a drag queen aficionado, I'd like to think I've learned a thing or two about their unique art form over the course of my life. And yet, nothing could quite prepare me or my unsuspecting companion for the visual and auditory assault that is Kiki and Herb: Alive From Broadway, now at American Conservatory Theater.
Drag queens being notoriously high-maintenance ("drag time" generally means hours late) it seemed appropriate that the show started an hour later than I thought it was supposed to. So my date and I headed to the Redwood Room to kill some time. Several shots of tequila later, our dignity hanging by a thread, we tottered back to the theater, and resisted the temptation to order more cocktails before taking our seats. As the curtain rose to reveal a surrealistic set that's been described as "Salvador DalÃ working in Las Vegas," and the audience began to scream wildly, it quickly became apparent this wasn't going to be just another night at A.C.T.
For 90 minutes or so, drag phenomenon Justin Bond steamrolls over the audience as Kiki Durane, an all too jaded, 76-year-old drunken cabaret chanteuse, while her sidekick Kenny Mellman frantically bangs on a massive grand piano as Herb, whom Kiki describes as a "gay Jew-tard foundling I hooked up with back at the institutional." Order a strong drink and check any vestiges of political correctness as you stumble into the theater. Audience members are not only allowed to bring cocktails into the theater for this show, they're encouraged to do so. And frankly... ladies and gentlemen (as veteran lounge lizard Kiki refers to the audience, about every 30 seconds or so)... for those who don't get into hyper-exaggerated drag at an almost ear-shattering level of amplification, a couple of whiskey sours might be what it takes to get through this theatrical battering.
But for the rest of us, the Tony-nominated Kiki and Herb: Alive From Broadway is a wonderfully bizarre and brilliantly executed amalgamation of performance art genres, all hiding under the guise of sloppy, drunken high camp. The duo's rollicking musical book finds its roots in such wide-ranging sources as Radiohead, Public Enemy and Scissor Sisters (with whom Bond and Mellman have toured) to the painfully '80s Alphaville. A rethinking of Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne," during which a weepy Kiki recalls a reunion with her long-lost daughter Miss D, is only one of several moments in the show that are surprisingly touching. (Especially given that she states up-front that such moments are completely manufactured.)
As the evening progresses, Kiki gets seemingly drunker, and as with most drunks, her eyelids become heavier, her hair gets messier and her set-up stories become alternately funnier, angrier and more long-winded, the boozy effect made all the more dramatic by a meticulously placed rhinestone under each eye. In the hands of a less experienced actor, antics such as this could easily become tiresome, but Bond's skillful performance transcends typical drag schtick, incorporating a mesmerizing mix of biting social and political commentary, and rueful recollections of a lifetime filled with painful, hysterical memories.
Despite their agreement to die upon the completion of a performance at Carnegie Hall a few years ago, Kiki and Herb are in fact alive, ladies and gentlemen, and their performance will leave you feeling the same way. Don't miss this.
Kiki and Herb: Alive From Broadway runs through July 29 at A.C.T. Get tickets and information (at act.org).