Cherdonna Shinatra appears from behind a half wall, one limb at a time. First, one gloved hand clasping an adult-scale baby rattle, then another holding a milk bottle. Next, an oversized, clumsy white bootie. Then Cherdonna’s head pops into view, framed by an enormous blue baby bonnet, her signature eye makeup taking up the majority of her face. Finally, she crawls into view, buck naked. “Surprise!” she yells as she jumps to her feet, “I’m a baby.”
Kissing Like Babies: part III of one great, bright, brittle alltogetherness premiered last weekend at On the Boards, Cherdonna’s mainstage debut in that venue. The drag queen-meets-clown-meets-modern dancer character is the creation of Jody Kuehner, whose alter ego seems equally at home in both the comedy burlesque scene and the experimental art realm, and combines the unexpected at every turn. She’s entertaining and challenging, high-femme and purposefully bizarre looking, physically awkward and totally comfortable in her own skin. So it’s only natural that Cherdonna takes on one of our culture’s strangest dichotomies—the infantilization of women.
“I’m so cute,” Cherdonna continues, cooing. “Do you want to pinch me?” She snakes her spine and flicks her back foot as if doing a sexy dance move, but the movement is so exaggerated that it takes on the quality of a strange unwieldy task. Playing with scale like this is where Kuehner excels. Everything is out of proportion in a way that can either be a punch line, or social commentary, or both. When she gingerly touches the nipple of a giant pacifier to the nipple of a baby bottle, there’s an implied sexuality that doesn’t belong, and yet, isn’t that what we are asking for when we desire women to be helpless, innocent or otherwise infantile?
Cherdonna is already an unsettling and hilarious mixture of child-like innocence and adult knowledge. “Want to play hopscotch?” she asks an audience member with an earnest eagerness. “Why don’t you suck my dick?” she shoots back at an unsatisfactory answer. A full-grown naked woman wearing a cartoonish baby costume makes a point about our culture’s fascination with youthful characteristics but doesn’t add more to the conversation than you might expect. It’s a well-tread subject: Pat Graney’s Girl Gods captured it two seasons ago when agile women performed a sexy dance in frilly baby-doll dresses, followed by an elderly woman hobbling around in the same getup. Where Kissing Like Babies distinguishes itself is in the relationship Cherdonna develops to a second major character—a chorus of six “dolls” with floral rompers, fake eyelashes and pink stamped-on circle cheeks.
The Dolls shriek with delight each time Cherdonna lets out a “goo goo gaa gaa,” gesturing wildly with the almost overwhelming desire to pinch and squeeze. The baby-crazy reaction is so over-the-top that it unnerves even Cherdonna. The group, which always operates as if with one brain, takes on an exaggerated mother role, playing the ego to Cherdonna’s id—encouraging her sometimes, scolding her others, constantly trying to appease, soothe, or dote on the somewhat helpless Cherdonna. They are the base of a human pyramid which Cherdonna ascends. She pokes their patient faces with an oversized baby bottle. She sits in full splits on top of their squished bodies with no concern for their personal space. The dolls even do a dance with literal giant, candy-colored chains. Kuehner is not just critiquing the infantilization of women here, but also the expectation for them to be cheerful caretakers, putting everyone else’s needs before their own.
The piece reaches its nexus as Cherdonna lip syncs to a recording of the classic hit “I Will Always Love You.” Except the audio is pulled from a viral video of a pubescent girl singing, who curses and screams in frustration every time her voice cracks. Beyond being funny, it captures the discrepancy between expectations and reality and the personal agony of trying to bridge that gap.
Resolution comes when Cherdonna decides what she wants to do is create a giant revolving kick line. The dolls are down, and the marching band (yes there’s a marching band) plays a triumphant and emotional number, signaling some kind of evolution. There never seems to be a rejection of the baby character directly, but locating and acting upon her own desires is at least a moral victory. Kissing Like Babies may not offer up anything we don’t already know—it’s generally accepted, at least among liberal theatregoers, that society has some pretty messed up expectations for women—but Kuehner’s unique delivery gives the audience plenty to both laugh at and chew on.