I can't stop thinking about Cherdonna's Doll's House.
Which is strange because throughout the final production of Washington Ensemble Theatre's season, I rarely had a clear understanding of what the creators (Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir and Jody Kuehner—aka Cherdonna Shinatra) intended the audience to do with the things they put on stage.
And yet, after 90 minutes of purposefully awkward silences and bad lip syncing and fourth wall breaking and dance breaks and cascading cookies, it all coalesced into something frank and personal—an examination of a very bizarre persona and her very human creator that is surprisingly in line with the original text it set out to adapt.
But, like, what is it exactly?
Billed as an adaption of A Doll's House—Henrik Ibsen's influential 1879 play about a young woman's break from a seemingly idyllic domestic life—the WET version does make a pass at performing the source material. There is a period-appropriate set. When the lights go down the room fills with orchestral music straight out of Masterpiece Theatre. But like the awkward double-possessive title, the host assumingly inserts herself into the production from the get go, appearing from just off the stage to pronounce, "This is my play!"
A Seattle art scene fixture, Cherdonna Shinatra is a bio queen—a drag queen who is also a biological woman—with a face like a melting birthday cake and hair the size of an ottoman. Acting much like a sugar manic preteen at her first school dance, she starts things off my gyrating around the empty and otherwise sober set for a while, testing out the space. When it comes time for her to join the audience to watch the play from her plush red throne, she just. can't. bear. it. She's too excited, you see. This is Cherdonna's favorite and everyone is going to love it.
The schtick might not be for everyone, but her rumbling volcano of enthusiasm and unbridled love for everything she lays her eyes and hands on make her difficult to dislike
Eventually the internal production of A Doll's House begins, albeit underneath Cherdonna's constant florescent presence. The cast—playing Ibsen's characters and the actors playing those characters—tries its best to stay focused, but breaking to interact with their colorful love heckler becomes inevitable. Leah Salcido Pfennings as Nora, Ibsen's quietly beleaguered protagonist, at first treats her like an unusual but harmless house guest, smiling politely as Cherdonna joyously violates everyone's personal space. Samie Spring Detzer as Mrs. Linde all but passes out laughing every time Cherdonna speaks. Brace Evans would love to chat with Cherdonna about how he feels as a gay black feminist playing Dr. Rank in this white Norwegian man's play. The Maid (Sally Brady) doesn't have time for any of this.
But this is Cherdonna's Doll's House, which means she can (and does) shout over lines or distract the audience with conversation or address actors directly to ask how they think the play is going or, in a stand out scene between Nora and Jeffery Azevedo's Krogstad, demand they read their lines faster. No, faster! FASTER!
In all of this, the non–Cherdonna cast earns its own share of laughs. Azevedo really nails the thankless task of playing it straight whenever Cherdonna interrupts. And Spring Detzer's try-hard attempts to join in on the fun briefly upstages the flamboyant one herself.
Needless to say, the source material gets shoved under Cherdonna's massive hairpiece, allowing only the broadest strokes of Ibsen's play to make it through all the noise: Nora is a young wife with a secret and eyes set beyond the confines of her comfortable home. Her husband (Jason Sharp, doing a lot of dramatic heavy lifting as Torvald) won't take her seriously, diminishing her with cute pet names and frivolous chatter.
And this is the conflict that matters. When the turn happens (and it is a hell of a turn), Cherdonna's Doll's House works best if you were paying attention to Nora, too. Because when the men eventually take back control of the stage, the space between the two women evaporates. And the initially amusing contrast between Ibsen's late-1800s feminist character and Kuehner's colorful explosion of personal liberty becomes something more damning.
Cherdonna's Doll's House
Thru May 15, 12th Avenue Arts, $25