Kiki & Herb: Seeking Asylum

Kiki & Herb: Seeking Asylum


By Jordan Cohen


Kiki and Herb, the audacious and innovative cabaret act brought to penetrating life by downtown performance legends Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman, have come out of retirement to give their adoring fans (of which there are countless) a head-spinning fever dream of a new show, Seeking Asylum, running for twenty-one performances now until May 22.


Bond and Mellman, who as Kiki and Herb helped to resuscitate the downtown cabaret scene in the mid-nineties, combine vigorously spun, madcap personal and historical narrative, powerful and smart political pronouncements, and a tidal wave of pop-folk- rock-punk covers made new by Kiki’s unconventional and delirious interpretations. What results is a show with as much ecstasy, humor, and humanity as can possibly fit on the small Joe’s Pub stage.

Kiki & Herb: Seeking Asylum

Bold and in your face, fragile and narcissistic, Kiki sings, struts, and sounds off while Herb, with workhorse devotion, accompanies Kiki’s antics on piano. Kiki makes full use of the stage and on multiple occasions climbs her way into the audience to ogle fans and mount a lap or two. She downs drink after drink, and as the evening progresses her inhibition flies out the door – she knocks over glasses, almost falls from her stool, and is slowly overcome by a grotesque, sad, and visceral yearning. “I’m tired of crying for America… for the disabled… the blacks… the women… the refugees… I just want to cry for me,” she sings as the finale nears.


As in their previous outings, Seeking Asylum delves deeply into Kiki’s biography: through digressions and diversions, Kiki explains her way through her many relationships, especially with her family: there’s Coco, who drowned off the coast of Monte Carlo, and Miss D, who is now raising Kiki’s grandchild, the “learning-disabled” yet hyper-awakened, gender-neutral Nikisha who now goes by her chosen name Opiate.

Kiki & Herb: Seeking Asylum


Kiki also expounds on our political goings-on in a way that only Kiki can. She confesses a sexual tryst in the sixties with an “adorable,” young Bernie Sanders, after which she began “feeling the Bern” (not the good kind). Of Hillary, she says, “If I had to vote,” – she can’t because she’s a Slav, as she constantly reminds us – “I’d vote for the showgirl, from showgirl to showgirl.”


In fact, Kiki partially blames the pair’s hiatus on the election of the first African American president. “No one wants to see Kiki and Herb when they have ‘hope,’” she opines before launching into a tale of improbable and outrageous events that included a stint for Kiki as an Al-Jazeera correspondent and a trip for Herb through Southeast Asia as a “sexual tourist.” Kiki spins a confounding yarn about meeting the Syrian dictator through a chain of introductions involving Wallis Simpson, Hitler, and Josip Tito. She bears witness to the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia and is eventually reunited with Herb, who, in a medically induced coma, is shipped home to San Francisco.


Kiki & Herb: Seeking Asylum

Kiki & Herb: Seeking Asylum



As for the songs, Kiki is at full throttle, much to the delight of the audience. Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” and Ted Grouya and Edmund Anderson “Flamingo” (the latter mashed up with a sample of “When Dove’s Cry) provide a rousing entrée into an evening that includes Elliot Smith, Tom Jones, Jonathan Larson, Suzanne Vega, and many more. Kiki’s passionate rendition of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” displays perfectly her political spirit while Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb” unleashes all her shimmies and shakes. Other highlights include Kiki’s performance of Momus’ “How to Get and Stay Famous,” a frustrating and bitter plea to the merciless showbiz gods, The Tiger Lillies’ “Banging in the Nails,” as hilarious as it is blasphemous, and her dramatically high-flying version of Elton John’s “The King Must Die.” There’s a little Richard II, by way of soliloquy, in there, too. Herb gets a solo and makes good use of it with a vulnerable performance of Death Cab For Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”


Like Kiki and Herb, sometimes we all need a little asylum – to laugh, reflect, have a drink, purge an emotion or three – and there is no better place to find it than at Joe’s Pub.


Kiki and Herb: Seeking Asylum!

Joe’s Pub at The Public Theatre

Through May 22

425 Lafayette St.

(212) 539-8778

Photos: Kevin Yatarola