When you go see Cherdonna Shinatra, you know that things could (no, definitely will) get weird. There’s a simultaneous expectation of something bonkers, and of not having any idea what’s going to happen. It’s an interesting limbo of uncertainty and anticipation. This can be very fun, and it can also be very uncomfortable. Cherdonna’s Doll’s House is both.
Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir and Jody Kuehner had the task of Cherdonna-fying Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for the Washington Ensemble Theatre. This was no mean feat—how do you take a classic play written in 1879 and combine it with the “part bio drag queen, part contemporary dancer, and part performance artist” that is Cherdonna Shinatra, Jody Kuehner’s over-the-top, electric, sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-frightening persona?
Turns out it’s just as complicated as it sounds, with varying results. The show opens in silence, as Cherdonna creeps birdlike onto the small stage in a neon green lace jumpsuit and signature towering wig, opening and closing her mouth like a ventriloquist doll, curious about the audience. She fondles the Christmas tree, affixing a Cherdonna ornament to it while exclaiming, “It’s Christmas!” and “I love this play!” with childlike enthusiasm. Then characters from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House enter the play in period costume, and the well-known intrigues—financial struggles, blackmail, domestic unrest, to name a few—unfold while Cherdonna provides running commentary for the audience and interacts with the actors. She takes their coats, she sits with them on the sofa, she drapes their arms around her neck. Nilla wafers fall from the sky repeatedly, and she rolls around on the rug, eating them and offering samples to the other actors. The set is small, and she’s always in the way. Disruptions large and small abound, and she often succeeds in getting the actors to break character, abandon their lines, and have conversations about the play, about banking, about feminism. “I’m going to see how I can work this into my character,” says Dr. Rank, played by Brace Evans, before rushing offstage to presumably do just that.
At a certain point the actors get irritated and ask if Cherdonna would just watch for a bit. “Watching” involves dancing slowly to and then undulating upon a giant pink throne in the center of the audience, where Cherdonna crouches and gives directions. This leads to one of the strongest sections of the show, when she asks “Can you go faster?!” in her sugar-fueled, wide-eyed voice, and the actors obligingly speed up their lines. Hilarity ensues as their words become unintelligible and their actions become frantic, and, impressively, they remain in character. Celine Dion’s “Power of Love” comes on and Cherdonna joins the action with a relatively traditional drag lip synch, doing high kicks out of her chair, sensually stripping out of the outermost element of her costume. When the song ends, she returns to some of the birdlike movement that appears periodically throughout the show, articulating her shoulders and elbows in silence, the only sound her tongue-tied stammering that contrasts with the fluency of the characters’ lines and her own lip synch performance.
A moment later, Cherdonna asks, “Can you do everything? Do it all.”
“All at once?” asks Nora, played by Leah Salcido Pfenning, and suddenly the entire cast is on stage doing various scenes from all acts of the original play, walking over each other, talking simultaneously, creating physical and audible chaos. This, too, is quite funny even as the tense interpersonal drama comes across. There’s a pounding disco beat behind the mayhem and Cherdonna dances around as if in a club. The full cast joins in a dance routine featuring contemporary hip thrusts and fierce, performative facial expressions. They’re entirely out of characters, and entirely committed to this shift.
This scene is interrupted repeatedly, first by male cast members Jason Sharp (Torvald) and Jeffrey Azevedo (Krogstad) mansplaining things like drag makeup and PMS remedies to Cherdonna, then by Salcido Pfenning (Nora), who asks many of the questions the audience may have had, about why Cherdonna felt compelled to “shit all over” Ibsen’s play, and what is up with the weird jerky movement and floor cookies. Cherdonna leaves her own show, fed up, confronted, and under appreciated.
There’s a lot happening here to comment on the evolution of feminism in performance, of what we think a woman can be, of how much space a woman can take up before she’s seen as an imposition. Cherdonna, true to form, takes every moment to the limit, reveling in awkward silence, stretching the length of time that an action might be funny, proving wrong comedy’s rule of three (three was often too many times for a shtick to happen in this show). The high points of Cherdonna’s Doll’s House are memorable. The painful awkwardness that existed in other points of the play lingers less, but the feeling of being unsettled remains. It’s a thought-provoking experiment. It might be occasionally incomprehensible and bizarre. But, as Nora says to Torvald in the final scene, “That is just it; you have never understood me.” We might never understand Cherdonna, but Cherdonna’s Doll’s House invites us to ask why we don’t understand.
Cherdonna’s Doll’s House, created by Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir and Jody Kuehner, directed by Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir, and performed by Washington Ensemble Theatre in partnership with Jody Kuehner aka Cherdonna Shinatra, runs April 28-May 15, 2017 at 12th Avenue Arts.