New York’s Most Subversive Christmas Show: Review of ‘Justin Vivian Bond: The Bipolar Express’
Justin Vivian Bond’s ‘The Bipolar Express’ at Joe’s Pub in New York begins as a sly celebration of dysfunction, and ends as a cleverly heartwarming Christmas pageant.
A cult figure with crossover appeal, Bond is a Tony-nominated performer who rose to acclaim as Kiki of the Kiki and Herb cabaret duo, which ran from the ‘90s up until 2007 and enjoyed a revival series of shows earlier this year.
Screen roles such as in the film Shortbus and the HBO web-turned-television series High Maintenance have followed. Bond has also been a vocal and visible transgender activist. But the intimate stage is where Bond returns with regularity for expression and entertainment, as with the current run of The Bipolar Express.
A tale of two halves, the show begins as a sly and rollicking celebration of dysfunction and coping skills, and wraps up as a cleverly heartwarming Christmas pageant of sorts. Through it all, Bond’s engaging personality and quirky-yet-dignified stage presence infuse an eclectic set list of covers, holiday standards and original compositions with signature charm.
The self-styled “trans-genre” performer grants the show its unifying slogan early on by gamely declaring that “glamour is resistance.” For somebody who has specified a preferred honorific (Mx. in place of Mr. or Ms.), as well as an alternative pronoun (“v” in place of “his” or “her”)—you might also say “grammar is resistance”—and who has thrown off the straitjacket of customary gender designations, Mx. Bond would seem to know a thing or two about bucking authority. (This review is written according to Mx. Bond’s choice of honorifics.)
A line that Bond attributes to longtime performance partner Kenny Mellman, the other half of Kiki and Herb, the resistance in question is against whatever may come in the uncertainties of the forthcoming Trump administration.
Recounting a gathering shortly after the election, in which v and v’s peers tried to make sense of the outcome, Bond declares vself ready to reach for combat boots from the closet once more and march for the rights of marginalized groups, LGBT and otherwise, in the face of intolerance. But upon reflection, v decides, perhaps it would be stiletto heels that would be most subversive after all.
Clad in an understated but eye-catching pink one-shoulder dress and at times clutching a knit black cape about v’s shoulders, Bond brings not just fashion sense but world-weary sensibility to gauging the political landscape.
The “Red State Section” of the performance includes an ode to The Grapes of Wrath’s downtrodden character of Tom Joad, and musing on v’s own family in a conservative area of otherwise-blue Maryland, as well as v’s Trump-voting mother—having switched from having voted Obama—in upstate New York.
This ranges from the playful defiance of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Almost Cut My Hair,” during which shades of v’s alter ego Kiki emerge as Bond wades among the audience with mock-menacing sneers and gestures, and Dolly Parton’s “Dumb Blonde,” to the introspection of Melanie Safka’s “The Sun and The Moon,” and a campy, but somehow poignant, spotlight on broken families in Porter Waggoner’s “Mama Ain’t That Daddy.”
In that token, while the songs themselves are the focus, offered in Bond’s distinctive singing voice, which like vself straddles two worlds with a soulful lower register that can still reach high for showy crescendos, it is during narrative vignettes on friends and family in which Bond showcases v’s personal humanity and offers glimpses on the challenges facing a trans person growing up.
In mentioning the recent death of v’s father, Bond confesses to more than a little ambivalence. Along with the grief of any passing, there was now relief that the man who had never allowed Bond home for the holidays since v would be “dressed as a fake woman” could now no longer prevent that homecoming this forthcoming Christmas.
Other more-approving family members are cited, namely the libertine ‘70s swinger Uncle Jerry, who inspires a tongue-in-cheek roguish take on Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” retooled as a reproductive rights confessional, as well as “Pop-Pop,” the grandfather who would tell a young Bond how pretty v looked in a dress rather than give rebuke.
Aware of the potentially stigmatizing connotation of the show’s title towards those who are bipolar or have similar mental illnesses, Bond also pays tribute to a longtime friend who spent time in and out of psychiatric wards over the years.
In particular, it is in recounting v’s response to this friend’s suicide attempt—“If you try that again, I will KILL you!”—and the friend’s marveling that anybody would care so much so as to react that way that reveals a lesson in the sense of isolation that can bring about such tragedies, and the need for solidarity as prevention.
Bond switches gears from personal and political to straightforward nostalgia, revealing a fondness for the ‘70s “movie-of-the-week” motif of the “Girl in Trouble,” citing such titles as “Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway” and “Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring.”
Recalling Sally Field’s turn in the latter, and cleverly reenacting the freeze-framed final shot from the television film, Bond covers the title track, originally performed by none other than Linda Ronstadt, with coy aplomb.
Finally, admonishing vself for having overlooked Christmas itself for much of an ostensibly winter- and holiday-themed performance, Bond enters the homestretch with a string of holiday tunes, including the self-penned “Christmas Spells,” which seeks to reconcile a spirit of tolerance and affection with the Christian holiday, as opposed to religion-justified bigotry.
Rickie Lee Jones’s “Christmas in New Orleans” and The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling,” follow. Pianist Matt Ray, violinist Claudia Chopek, and guitarist Nath Ann Carrera provide low-key and affable accompaniment throughout, and the latter joined Bond for two other holiday highlights, “Little Drummer Boy” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
It is this “Little Drummer Boy” duet that perhaps best captured the essence of The Bipolar Express. Carrera was along for the ride when Bond, in 2010, fully embraced v’s trans identity, and in similarly genderqueer fashion was bedecked in a dramatic but simple black sleeveless dress at v’s side as they sought to reenact, by their account, the dynamic between country legends Tammy Wynette and George Jones.
But, Bond pointed out, it didn’t matter “which of us is Tammy and which of us is George” so long as they paid tribute. Living life to the beat of your own drum—your inner drummer person, be it boy or girl or both or neither—would be the key.
Justin Vivian Bond: The Bipolar Express is at Joe’s Pub, New York City, Dec 19-23. Book tickets here.