Saturday, June 16, 2007

Post-apocalyptic cabaret

Ta-da! It's the end of the world, with Kiki & Herb!

Time is short (I'm on va-kay this week), so I must only sketch in my thoughts on "Kiki & Herb, Alive from Broadway" (through June 30 at the Calderwood). You might be surprised to learn there's a lot to think about - drag cabaret is constantly being pulled in new directions, but no one has driven the form quite so far as Justin Bond (Kiki, an aging, booze-hound chanteuse) and Kenny Mellman (Herb, her equally ancient accompanist). Certainly the show is being misleadingly sold - it's hardly the wacky, witty bitchfest one might expect to see on Saturday night in Provincetown; instead it's brimming with cultural disgust and haunted by a tone of incipient horror. It's hard to believe, but this strange little lounge act may be the most accurate barometer of the zeitgeist we've got.

It turns out that Kiki & Herb aren't just survivors - they're actually so old they knew Jesus (get ready - they drank milk from a cow that chowed down on the immaculate afterbirth, so now they're immortal). Alas, said miracle didn't include a vocal upgrade - Kiki doesn't have much of a voice, and generally either belts or wails while Herb jack-hammers the ivories. Even this doesn't really matter, because their material (which wends its twisty way through Public Enemy and Scissor Sisters, for starters) isn't very good, either, so there's not much melody to be squandered by their approach.

But don't make the mistake of thinking Kiki & Herb are trying to conjure one of those they're-so-bad-they're-good camp tributes; they're far too perversely sophisticated for anything so straightforward. They are, in fact, above all, cool saboteurs of everything that's already been accorded an accepted, affectionate cultural niche, be it campy, conservative, high- or low-brow (even William Butler Yeats, via "The Second Coming," makes a brief appearance). The n-word gets tossed around, Herb is repeatedly called a "gay Jew-tard," ("We own that word!"), and there's generally a sense of assault on all norms of civilized behavior, coupled with a rueful sense of their disappearance. (The demented structure of their act - which tries to deliver cabaret versions of brain-dead rock and rap, is just the first of their many counter-intuitive gambits.) In the end, this is a go-for-broke wail of pain at the fact that our insane religious manias (not for nothing are Kiki & Herb as old as Christ) combined with the market-driven drivel of our culture are driving us swiftly to ruin. It's the end of the world as we know it - you can tell that from the twisted, plastic tree next to the piano, which is itself sinking into what looks like magma on some kind of blasted heath - and Kiki & Herb hardly feel fine; no, they're just too drunk to care (by the finish, you may need a stiff drink, too). This pair may make you howl with laughter - but they also make you want to howl.

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