Review: Comedian Kate Berlant's Kate Makes Something Out of Nothing. Or Nothing Out of Something.
Bo Burnham directs Berlant's new solo show at the Connelly Theater, which blends comedy, memoir, and every theatrical cliché you love to hate.
"A play," esteemed British theater critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote, "is basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored." Tynan came to this high-brow epiphany during the original 1955 London production of Waiting for Godot — Samuel Beckett's piece of philosophical clowning that blew Aristotle's Poetics to dust and yet somehow managed to, well, be a play (one that people seem to want to sit through again and again and again). Kate Berlant then took a good look at Beckett and thought, "What if I also took out anything resembling insight?" It's a Jenga tower that defies gravity, but miraculously, Kate is still a "play" — and one that leaves no opportunity for boredom.
I'm fully aware that Berlant's self-aggrandizing character, "Kate," who headlines the Connelly Theater in her overwrought (and tellingly self-titled) show-within-a-show, would be elated to hear a New York critic compare her work to Beckett. Her faux-artistic sensibilities are clear from the moment she ushers us into the theater via what we're told is a loyal recreation of her childhood living room — a shag-carpeted space covered in plastic forks and cigarettes. And of course, there's a nostalgic home video playing on what looks like a nine-inch television set to flesh out the immersive experience (scenic design by Dots). We take one look at that sweet, curly-topped little girl, and prepare to ask, how could it all have gone so wrong? And yet also so right. After all, Kate is clearly a Cinderella story that will explain how she arrived at this moment of eminence through the aesthetic of Sleep No More-meets-Tilda-Swinton-performance-art.
When Kate finally takes the stage (following an extended black-and-white silent film reel of herself being "raw" and "brave" — my words, but also probably hers), she hits us with every possible trope of solo memoir: A small-town girl with big dreams and a haunting secret beats the odds and proves her naysayers wrong, all within the narrative confines of a mystical framing device. I'd rather not fill in many more details because those are what propel Kate through its otherwise vacuous space. It may have the quintessential shape of a play, but all that scaffolding ultimately bears none of the weight. It's just Berlant, maneuvering through a brilliant and wholly original comedic performance that catches you every time the whole endeavor feels on the edge of crumbling.
So is it just an hour-and-a-half-long spoof of bad autobiographical theater? Yes and no. Traditional satire would quickly run out of steam, like a stand-up special with one good joke. In many ways, Kate does rely on a singular comedic focal point — a self-absorbed actor with delusions of grandeur, desperately trying to keep her show on track (delightfully faulty sound design by Palmer Heffernan and perfectly indulgent lighting by Amith Chandrashaker).
And yet, Berlant, who is known in the comedy world for her stream of consciousness acts doused in self-deprecation, knows how to find varied paths down the narrow rabbit holes she digs for herself. Unlike her director, Bo Burnham, whose innovative comedy specials mix the avant-garde with social commentary, Berlant's tangents don't go far afield from her initial banal premise (Burnham's sensibility for precision nicely complements Berlant's coiled brain patterns). But the feelings of suspense and discovery that are nowhere to be found in the piece itself are baked into Berlant's tightrope act as a performer who simultaneously takes everything and nothing seriously.
She intentionally blurs the line between Kate, the insufferable character, and Kate, the human being, inviting you to mock her for her insipid struggles and superficial aspirations. Usually, the self-referential exercise of pointing out your biggest flaws is a lazy way to neutralize them. But that doesn't seem to be Berlant's goal at all. She just wants to acknowledge the absurdity of her life while strangling it with a bear hug. Maybe she's a modern-day Beckett after all.