Kate Berlant scrunches her face up in close-up, her features creased and extended on a screen in front of us, immersed in a self-generating pantomime of willing herself to cry. It is meant to be funny; the facial gymnastics, the desperation to look sad so quickly, to wring teardrops, hell just one teardrop, for the camera—her lust object and tormentor. She is trying to ace an audition, and also trying to ace herself after a lifetime of trying. But she can’t, or can she?
Like a lot in the exquisite one-person show Kate, written and performed by Berlant and directed by Bo Burnham (Connelly Theater, to October 8), the joke is not isolated but threaded into a subversive, engrossing comedy of ambition, character, and the nature of storytelling and performance itself—and who the Kate in front of us, and the Kate she is playing, and the Kate who plays characters for a living, really is. Yes, that’s a lot of Kates, and Berlant is an illuminating riot burrowing into every layer of them.
Berlant first appears before the beginning of her own show. She watches us. She comes in and sits for a few minutes near the front of the stage. She slinks away. There is an absurdly funny countdown, and then the first blatant purpose of Kate is made clear in one of the cards that flash up on the large screen in front of us: the details of her agents and representation. Berlant wants her career to go to the next level. This is a comedy show, and the best, most unapologetically shameless of audition-meets-resumés.
You—especially comedy fans—may have seen her in comedy specials, or on stage in other shows, or the new TV version of A League of Their Own, or in The Other Two, and Search Party. Or, actually, you may have not, even if you watch all those shows. A scrolling page of her credits that flashes up shows, to lacerating self-effect, she is not, in her estimation—and yes, ours after this fabulous show—not famous enough. But she has worked a lot. She has even survived the feud-strewn deliciousness that is Don’t Worry Darling, which of course she must somehow weave into the show tout de suite. But when, these endless credits silently intone, will her time come? Can she make it happen quicker with Kate?
One should always be cautious using the m-word. But here is an occasion when it is entirely fitting: Berlant’s Kate is a masterpiece, and—if you have the opportunity to go see it, you must. It isn’t a play, it isn’t stand-up. It is a piece of theater, a personal piece of theater—very funny, and then, just when you are immersed in its absurdity, its laughter at itself and everything around it, it pierces you emotionally. It’s 90 minutes of shape-shifting virtuosity.
The show is about the making of the show we are watching, and the making of the person who has made it. It is bookended with Berlant playing Harry, a cleaner at the theater we are sitting in, the Connelly, a parody of an old theater geezer sweeping the floor (and yes, even this sweeping is side-splitting), and then finally not.
“I’m seeing some actual looks of terror,” Berlant tells us mid-mugging as Harry. “So I just want to pop out and say. Relax. I’m in control of this. What I’m doing here with this character, with this motif, is a deliberate choice. And it works. The show works. I’ve got you. Relax.”
And she really does, but you won’t relax. Berlant plays fast and loose with her own family history, and with familiar constructions of celebrity—first, a solitary childhood gazing into night skies to find some inspiration. And then, arched eyebrow alert, she has a secret… duh duh duh. What can it be?
And then: “I’m nervous. I have this show I’m going to be doing? In New York City. At The Connelly, this little forgotten gem. It’s different for me. I’ve had some success in TV and film–no big breakout role yet, but I’ve had some memorable moments… But I want to return to the stage. It’s more rigorous, honest. It’s selfless… Anyway, this show I’m working on is different… I’m going to be talking about something I’ve never talked about. See, I have this secret? The show is a mess. It’s about me, so of course it is…”
The show is about the show; Kate Berlant is playing many Kates and many others, and while the joke is this show is really an audition for something bigger for Berlant, that is also the reality. As the man in front of me said to a friend, upon the leaving the theater, “OK, that was meta, meta, and then more meta.”
“All my previous work has been a pale shadow, a humiliation, an impotent suggestion always gesturing toward, yet never quite arriving … until now,” Berlant wrote in a pre-show statement. “I can’t wait to welcome you into my home, which is the theatre. Although I haven’t been home in a long time, it feels good to be back and I’m so grateful they kept the lights on for me. Although it is forbidden to take your shoes off in my home, I hope you will still allow yourself to shed a layer—to become vulnerable and receptive to the possibility of transformation.”
Variations of these lines are repeated in the show—they receive laughs for their saucer-eyed comic earnestness, but they also contain absolute, non-ironic truth too.
“Kate” is actually kind of pissed off to be at the Connelly; to be paying her dues in a theater miles from anything; she hopes her agent, any agent, sees it. This show is a showcase, and supposed to be her ticket out of here. We travel with her through a messed-up “half Jewish, half Spanish” childhood, to New York—the wide eyes of the ingenue on the hot, heavy streets is given the sheen of perfect parody and plausibility all at once.
On a small stage, with lean and clever design by Dots and lighting by Amith Chandrashaker, we travel with her to a man’s apartment, and here again is the recurring motif of the play and perverse guiding light and lens of Kate’s life: the camera. It was first pointed at her by her mother. It keeps being pointed at her. Annoyingly for her, it keeps freaking her out, especially at auditions when she really needs to hold it together. What does she want? Why does she want it so much? And also: Can we see what she is doing here in front of us? Can we see the craft of it? Hello, she’s working hard here!
In all these comedy cross-currents we watch Berlant’s face bloom and change in front of us—it is the perfect comic face for so many human conditions and impressions; its malleability brings to mind a lineage of mastery of, say, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, Kate McKinnon, and Barry Humphries. Whole stories can be told by such faces without words, whole jokes, whole moments of connection with an audience. What Berlant doesn’t say is just as funny as what she does; our audience was quickly and absolutely fixed in the bright, hot beam of her comic command.
“The delight of ‘Kate,’ for all its bathing in comic subversion, is that it is also a bravura encapsulation of everything theater can be, for both performer and audience.”
As much as Berlant keeps hilariously undermining and complicating her own story, it’s amazing—towards its end—that while we may be laughing, we are also rooting for her, quite seriously, to complete the mission she has set herself. One is an obvious personal mission; and the other—for all her earlier, embittered scorn of where she is—is a celebration of performance and being right here at the Connelly, with us. The delight of Kate, for all its bathing in comic subversion, is that it is also a bravura encapsulation of everything theater can be, for both performer and audience.
Lest that all sound too hokey, Berlant also genuinely hopes there are some bloody agents and showbusiness figures of influence in the house (one ongoing joke in the show is based around this)—because Kate really is a calling card; a magnificent, clever, silly, profound, perfectly written, performed, and directed one. Let’s hope Berlant gets her wish, and the show helps take her to whatever level of recognition and fame she desires. Whatever, go see Kate, so if all goes to plan you can say that you saw Berlant shine here first.
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