Cherdonna peekaboos her way on stage in a buff-colored bell-bottomed jumpsuit, camouflaged by her surroundings. Her clown-like makeup and over-the-top expressions pop in her world of beige. Her set is literally a blank canvas—neutral fabric envelopes the floor, two poufs, and a 10-ft-tall Raggedy Ann doll. The purity of the set means nothing to Cherdonna, however, who, over the course of the piece, unceremoniously uses her sleeve as a napkin, draws on the doll with lipstick, and covers the stage in a truck-load of party supplies, followed by generous amounts of paint. This is Clock that Mug or Dusted (June 2-12 at Velocity Dance Center), the latest evening-length creation of Jody Kuehner, better known as her bio-queen alter ego, Cherdonna Shinatra.
The bulk of the piece is Cherdonna’s interaction with the mess she creates, through which Kuehner wields humor and physical comedy like a machete in the hands of an experienced bushwhacker. Playing with expectations and timing are a large part of how she captivates an audience. Cherdonna makes promises and then delivers on them: she fills a high heel completely with paint and then wears it, the audience squealing as paint gushes over the side. Cherdonna doesn’t stop there though. She sticks with an idea longer and goes farther than the audience expects, until it becomes something else entirely. At one point, she offers to prepare a vegetable sandwich, and then does so with whole vegetables—she adds more whole vegetables than can fit, and then donuts, and then more donuts, and then duct tape.
Cherdonna’s character has always had a certain amount of naiveté, but in this work her innocence is exaggerated. Cherdonna doesn’t know she’s making a mess. She doesn’t hesitate to ask for help from audience members. She has no shame or self-awareness. Her physical precariousness—often exhibited as she tumbles about the stage or balances on unstable objects—makes watching her akin to observing a newly birthed fawn. Cherdonna is at her most child-like as she plays with whatever seems to appeal to her in the moment. There are common elements night-to-night, but the way she interacts with the set is improvised based on which objects she happens upon.
This innocence is subverted somewhat, however, as she repeats the mantra “I’m not trying to be mean,” while mangling the giant doll with increasing violence. Is this a statement on the potential danger of the ignorant? Or on the passive aggressiveness that is often characterized as a female characteristic? This moment stands out as maybe the first in Cherdonna history where she is not a hero, and it’s very unsettling.
There is a great deal of transition throughout the piece. What starts out as the Cherdonna we know and love evolves into something almost unrecognizable. She is covered in paint. She has cut off her hair. She is wearing a grotesque Halloween mask. She has returned to infancy. She has discarded the “high fem” Cherdonna is known for. Kuehner has stated that this is Cherdonna’s most explicitly feminist work. Yes, she pays homage to feminist performance art and destroys more than a few vaguely phallic objects, but perhaps the most feminist aspect is that men have never felt less relevant to her work.
Cherdonna was once defined by her relationship to partner Lou Henry Hoover as part of the Cherdonna and Lou Show. Her previous evening-length work employed male cherubs that served at her beck and call. But now, Cherdonna seems to exist farther and farther outside that paradigm. Considering that, it’s no surprise that the show ends with Cherdonna dancing to the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s iconic title sequence. Moore herself made a similar transition: once known for her role on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she went on to have a show of her own name—one of the first in TV history to star a single career woman. Those familiar with the Cherdonna canon will find her usual press language insufficient for Clock that Mug. She is not so much “gender fluid” as post-gender. The oft described “female impersonator impersonator,” has cut out the literal middle man. Kuehner is Cherdonna, and Cherdonna is post-Cherdonna. Like many feminists before her, she will likely receive criticism for being too much or not enough of what we wanted her to be. For not fitting perfectly into the space we had carved out for her. The expectations Cherdonna defies in Clock that Mug read loud and clear: You don’t own me.
Clock that Mug or Dusted is part of Velocity Dance Center’s Made in Seattle program, and continues this weekend, June 10-12 at 7:30pm in Velocity’s Founders Theater. Tickets are available HERE. Find out more about Cherdonna at cherdonna.com.