Rated X-mas

“Sherry’s Christmas Show” at Louis B. James gallery. (Photo: Nikki Columbus)

NEW YORK FAMILIES mark the holidays in different ways. For some, this might mean piling the kids off to see the Rockettes, sitting down to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” or joining the crowds to skate in circles in Central Park. Downtown, however, the performance crowd has its own repertoire of campy seasonal attractions: beglittered and bewigged, ambisexual and scantily dressed. I decided to find out more.

First up was “Mx. Bond’s Austerity Holiday Measures: A Snow Job for the Masses” at Abrons Arts Center. Justin Bond, of course, used to be the first half of Kiki and Herb—a duo with Kenny Mellman that started downtown but ended up playing Carnegie Hall and Broadway. But in the past few years Bond has struck out on v’s own, adding “Vivian” as v’s middle name, taking estrogen, and preferring the pronoun “V.” All of this was infamously discussed in a catty New York magazine profile that understandably drew Bond’s ire.

It turned out not to be much of a holiday show in theme but rather a variation on recent gigs: a catholic range of songs (including some by Bond) interspersed with humorous stories and kvetching about current political and economic affairs. The tone was captured by the opening number, LCD Soundsystem’s “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down,” and highlights included Kate Bush’s “Moments of Pleasure” (which brought my friend to tears) and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.” The unusually unglamorous Bond characterized vs outfit as “kooky art teacher goes to a holiday party”—a charitable description at best. V closed with a couple of timely songs: Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling” (which nearly brought me to tears). The entire evening was marred by a spotlight operator who couldn’t keep lit the barely moving Bond, but the half-full house didn’t seem to mind.

Video from “Mx. Bond’s Austerity Holiday Measures: A Snow Job for the Masses” at Abrons Art Center, December, 2011.

Joe’s Pub was also offering seasonal entertainment. The recent renovations have “bougie-fied” this previously scruffy standby: no more standing room, and no avoiding the two-drink minimum or, at the tables, dreadful overpriced food. Of course, Hahn-Bin’s “Till Dawn Sunday” wasn’t actually billed as a holiday show; instead, this violin prodigy–turned–flamboyant new romantic was staging his own funeral. Discovered by Itzhak Perlman and adopted by Klaus Biesenbach—who invited the violinist to solo in Warhol’s Screen Tests and serenade Madonna—Hahn-Bin started the evening among the audience. A magician cut through a box, from which Hahn-Bin magically emerged intact (ta-da!), clutching a rose between his teeth, and began to play a piece by Astor Piazzolla. Although he billed himself as “the world’s saddest clown,” Hahn-Bin’s glam makeup, beautifully tailored clothes (featured via multiple costume changes), and spectral presence evoked something between Leigh Bowery and Klaus Nomi. There was some more stage business involving a coffin, a short monologue (“Am I a manic depressive or a hoarder of sadness?”), and red balloons, but mainly there was music: soaring selections of classical and popular melodies, from Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky to Gershwin and Arlen (“Somewhere over the Rainbow”), ably accompanied by pianist John Blacklow. A personal highlight was the theme to Young Frankenstein, performed absolutely straight—surely a reflexive nod to Mel Brooks’s spoof of this hammy macabre aesthetic.

Back at Joe’s Pub the following night was “Our Hit Parade,” a monthly sendup of Top Ten songs. I am a devoted fan of OHP, extremely fond of its hosts—Bridget Everett, Neal Medlyn, and Kenny Mellman (yes, formerly the latter half of Kiki and Herb)—and am regularly brought to fits of giggles by the opening chords of “What’s in My Diaper?” (don’t ask). The year-end special didn’t disappoint, with a dozen singers taking on the most aggravatingly ubiquitous singles of the past twelve months, including songs by Lady Gaga, Adele, and, obvs, Katy Perry. The highlight was a cover of Beyoncé’s “Countdown,” in which a half-naked Medlyn and two performers re-created the video’s controversial dance routine, partially lifted from the work of Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

Justin Bond in “Mx. Bond’s Austerity Holiday Measures: A Snow Job for the Masses” at Abrons Art Center. (Photo: Tanya Braganti)

The final destination on my downtown Christmas odyssey was a visit to Ann Liv Young’s solo show at the new Orchard Street gallery Louis B. James. In the guise of Sherry, an aggressive Southerner in a flowing blonde wig, Young was offering “Sherapy” for individuals and couples, a Holiday Masturbation Workshop, and a Christmas show. On arriving at the last of these, I was greeted by Sherry in a Mrs. Claus velvet cape and given a Styrofoam “S” as a tree decoration. Old costumes hung on the walls next to small video monitors showing the performances in which they were worn; a shelf of clear boxes held fake nails, dirty heels, and chewed gum (the exhibition checklist also mentions “poop, glitter”). In the back room were two paintings of Sherry (not bad, but not made by her), a decorated Christmas tree, an illuminated painting of the Last Supper, and a naked older man named “Tommy D” (who may or may not have been a member of the audience). The gallery had a definite bodily odor to it, which became disturbingly vivid as Sherry encouraged us to inhale deeply.

She soon began picking on the audience, in her usual persecutory style. Her aim? To discover “the meaning of Christmas.” About twenty people sat in a semicircle, including dancer David Hallberg, the American Ballet Theatre principal who recently joined the Bolshoi. But Sherry has a sixth sense for easy targets, asking the sexually confused to define themselves and demanding that the shy ones speak up. Although these Q&As can ramble on for hours, this show had a terrific narrative arc: A young Cooper Union student went from being one of Sherry’s early victims to, two hours later, the chosen subject of her serenading. “I feel blessed,” the girl confessed.

That might seem like a Christmas story right there, but the voyeuristic thrill you get from watching Sherry in action can also feel downright creepy; it’s not unlike spying on your neighbor through binoculars. Here, though, audience members pat themselves on the back for avoiding Sherry’s ire or, even better, making it through her grilling unscarred.

But this is downtown Christmas to a tee: a parade of exuberant misfits struggling to find ways to entertain, provoke, and act out. And we, their equally eccentric audience, love them for it. Instead of the family we were born with, this is the family we’ve chosen—and we’re even more dysfunctional.