by Jordan Cohen
Punk Kabarett International at Joe’s Pub on Friday, January 15, brought together an eclectic roster of musicians and performance artists, all under the management of downtown stalwart Earl Dax, in one of the most unique showcases of talent I have seen in a very long time.
Kate Rigg (of the band Slanty Eyed Mama) kept the evening moving with bold commentary and generous introductions as the MC. Decked out in a red and black kimono and spiked black boots, she performed the outrageous spoken word song, “Me Love You Long Time,” simulating sex acts with an invisible Kim Jong-un and sending up many Asian stereotypes along the way.
The legendary queer performance artist Joey Arias presented a Dadaesque tribute to the late David Bowie, for whom he sang back up during a 1979 Saturday Night Live performance. Accompanied by cello and piano, he waxed dreamlike about Bowie’s death and performed a ghostly version of “Fame.” Instrumental notes flew about like a Dada noise concert and Mr. Arias, with uncanny accuracy, matched the instruments’ sounds. He let his hair down (literally) for a jazzy rendition of “A Hard Day’s Night,” sauntering about the house, soliciting “Feel alright”-s from unsuspecting audience members. Although Mr. Arias regularly performs in drag, he went sans make-up and wore a simple black-pants-and-vest combo that seemed to fit his elegiac yet celebratory tone.
Backed by eight-time MAC award winner Tracy Stark on piano, Barb Jungr, a UK cabaret artist, sang “First We Take Manhattan,” by Leonard Cohen, with a foreboding and depth of feeling that had the audience hanging on every word. A consummate performer, she endowed each phrase with import and drama. Ms. Jungr’s passionate and resounding version of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s-A Gonna Fall” drew rapturous applause.
“She’s lilliputian, but she’s powerful,” remarked Ms. Rigg, as she introduced Penny Arcade, an “international icon of cultural resistance” who first came to fame as one of the youngest members of Warhol’s Factory in the late 1960s. In her patented confrontational style, she railed against gentrification, “slack-tivism,” nostalgia, and cupcakes – the “narcotic of the new infantilized masses.” Her performance was a call to wake up: “this is not cabaret, this is not stand-up, this is not performance art, this is not experimental theatre…!!” she exclaimed. “This is YOU and ME!” Painful, scathing, and at times difficult to digest, Ms. Arcade best represented the “punk” ethos and proved why she remains a cultural icon after 45 years.
Stew and Heidi Rodewald, who won several awards for their 2008 Broadway hit Passing Strange, presented two songs from their new musical, “Notes of a Native Song,” inspired by the life James Baldwin. Stew is a gifted rock singer and spoken word artist, and draws in audiences with not only his vital, bluesy vocals, but also his incredible storytelling. Both songs, in different ways, capture aspects of the black experience in America, critiquing violence, politics, and racism with lyrics like “Hanging chads/Lynching boys” and “Are you following him OK?/We don’t need you to do that.” I’m crossing my fingers this show gets a high profile New York performance soon.
Carol Lipnik charmed audiences with her ethereal appearance and quiet but quirky humor. She has a gorgeous voice—like angels playing heavenly flutes. Her second song, which she introduced as “an alien opera clown invasion,” combined skillful coloratura flourishes and spoken word poetry. Ms. Lipnik then transitioned into “Moon River,” undercutting the sap, mid-song, with a perfectly ironic bugle section.
Closing out the evening was Astrid Hadad, well-known Mexican singer and performance artist, who brought down the house with her abundant energy and wild, traditional Mexican-inspired costumes (her huge, white hoop skirt had its own inner light grid!). She danced with uninhibited joviality and sang, mostly in Spanish and “meows,” with enormous gusto.
It was a wild night that proved the downtown experimental scene is still a force to be reckoned with.
Punk Kabarett International. Presented by Earl Dax. Took place January 15 at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theatre (425 Lafayette Street, near Astor Place). www.PublicTheater.org
*Joey Arias cover photo by Heath McBride