An Afternoon at the Frye With Cherdonna, Cher, and DONNA

Campy and surreal, a new exhibit showcases Seattle’s Lady Dada
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The title is a slang term in lesbian-separatist circles for female genitals, but your kids don’t need to know that if you take them to Ditch, Jody Kuehner’s installation/performance piece at the Frye. If they have a healthy attention span, they’ll probably enjoy seeing Kuehner’s vivacious alter ego, Cherdonna Shinatra, and her dance troupe DONNA in the exuberantly puzzling 50-minute show “melding clowning with contemporary dance”—which the dancers have committed to performing every day of the installation’s run, through April 28: 80 shows in all, give or take a snow day.

Aqua, magenta and hot orange dominate in the performance space, lined with large patchwork soft sculptures (of body parts) and floor tiles in the same Day-Glo shades ("like jumping into Candyland," Kuehner says). Into this space, to the strains of circus calliope and band music, come Cherdonna and DONNA—she with a squeaky hammer and a bulb horn, they with hula hoops. Silent and silly interactions with audience members will probably both put you at ease and deepen the mystery (Kuehner says, in an interview on the brochure accompanying the exhibit, that the show varies somewhat depending on how large a crowd shows up to see it), followed by the performance’s most overtly comic episode, as Cherdonna tries undauntedly but futilely to pedal a toddler’s Big Wheel.

As the music grows ominous, the mood sombers; some kind of crisis dispels the jollity, and eventually it becomes clear Cherdonna’s dancers are laughing at her, not with her. She tries to join in, her own laughter growing more desperate and forced. This breaks into the performance’s long, remarkably obsessive climax: Cherdonna lip-syncs, without a break, a looped fragment of “I’m a Woman”—"Lay down at five/Get up at six/And start all over again ’cause I’m a..."—dozens and dozens of times, making eye contact with each audience member in turn. Meanwhile, DONNA tirelessly performs a vampy backup dance routine right out of a 1970s variety show. The voice on the loop is Cher’s, and its origin, YouTube reveals, actually is her variety show, a number with special guest Raquel Welch.

As Ditch developed, Kuehner says, it absorbed another meaning: an invitation to leave something behind—your preconceptions about dance or visual art, your own personal troubles, the horrors of the daily headlines. The task for her Cherdonna persona, Kuehner says, is her “greatest challenge yet: making every single person happy.” The price of this challenge, locked in that endless lip-sync loop, is collapsing in a fetal position from the strain. A woman’s work—even a clown’s—is never done.

Ends April 28; see website for performance schedule. Free. Frye Art Museum, First Hill, 704 Terry Ave.; 206.622.9250; fryemuseum.org

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