It’s not exactly breaking news in the world of show-biz satire that actors can be vain, or insecure; it’s been mined. But for as long as time and human consciousness still exist, there will be performers eager to wring laughter from skewering the vocation they hold dear, and audiences hungry for the piss-takes, as if they’re being let in on some trade secret. Proof that this tradition never has to get old can currently be found at the Pasadena Playhouse, where actor/comic Kate Berlant is playing an especially navel-gazing version of herself in “Kate,” a weird and riotous one-woman show. Fellow performers may appreciate Berlant’s marvelous cringe-binge most of all, but you don’t have to be in the business to get off on it. If you’ve ever locked your own gaze in a mirror for more than 30 seconds at a time, that’s probably all the pre-qualifying you need to appreciate this delirious tribute to self-absorption.
“Kate” earns a lot of its giggles the old-fashioned way: through unabashedly zany gags. There’s a danger in making the show sound too much like performance art — you wouldn’t want to scare anyone off who just wants to laugh. But it’s got a constant sense of adventure, if not a strong whiff of the avant-garde, in the way it uses mixed media and mixed moods, keeping you on your toes with as many hairpin turns as could possibly be built into a solo show. Of course, Bo Burnham, who directed this production (as he did with “Kate’s” previous runs off-Broadway and in London), is famous for his own anything-can-happen spirit; he’s an ideal bird-of-a-comedic-feather, in enabling Berlant’s experimental tendencies. If there’s a crucial difference between their performance styles, it’s that Burnham can remain a cool cucumber in the midst of chaos, where Berlant really likes to run hot, diving head-first into the comedy of desperation. By the end of the show, she is a UTA-repped woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Seeing someone’s ego splinter may not sound like everyone’s idea of an amusing time, so you may have to trust us on this: watching her crack up is a crack-up.
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The show starts on the sidewalk, with Berlant’s name or likeness sticker-plastered or illuminated just about everywhere, inside or outside of the 99-year-old playhouse. Even the men’s room is not safe from her constant branding (although let’s thank someone for stopping short of putting Kate’s visage in the urinals). Entering the lobby before showtime, there’s Berlant herself, roped off and seated with a smartphone and a sign that says “Ignore Me.” Oddly, on opening night, almost everyone did, either not noticing the star in their rush to get seated or just assuming it was a ringer. (That was her, right?) She has plenty of time to take her place backstage after people are seated, because it turns out there is a video pre-show to get through before she emerges; with any luck, this will be the only time the Pasadena Playhouse ever feels like an AMC. By the end of it, you will know not just her manager’s and agent’s phone number — much of the show that follows is presented as her attempt to impress a Disney+ bigwig — but see a title card telling us just how long her tenure on Prime Video’s “A League of Their Own” lasted (not long enough) and whether she considers herself part of the Stanislavski tradition (a big yes).
Finally, Berlant is on-stage, not as herself, initially, but in the guise of a magical theater janitor, in what is presumably a nod to the “Carol Burnett Show” cleaning woman of yore. Berlant soon abandons the character bit and presents as herself, but she’s nobody’s idea of a reliable witness in recounting her own story. Doing an imitation of her mother, she might as well be enacting Cinderella’s stepmother; even though she already told us Mom was Latino, she adopts an inexplicable brogue. (“I’m playing with a certain emotional texture here. It’s one that only an Irish accent can really give you,” she admits; later on, when things really start breaking down, she blurts out, “I just have to say, my depiction of my mother from this show is libel.”) The crux of what narrative this show has comes to the fore when the mom taunts li’l Kate with a video camera, scarring her as she repeatedly warns: “Don’t you know the camera requires subtlety? It even registers thought! Your big, crass style of indication has no place in front of the camera.” And a deep, damaging, spirit-crushing wound is facetiously born.
Our heroine moves from the “small seaport town” of Santa Monica to New York, where she embraces the theater as an escape route from her hearts desire to do on-camera work. Talking about the Playhouse itself, which she alternately exalts and insults, Berlant basks in its being “some kind of ancient sanctuary” and how “no one in Hollywood has ever heard of it… It’s really liberating to do something that’s not bogged down by the professional stakes of film or TV.” (Later, she takes that back, as things go awry, growling to an unseen stagehand that the crowd is indeed full of boldface names and “it’s like the fucking Indie Spirit Awards out there.”)
Pregnant or awkward silences give the show some dynamics, as Berlant keeps letting down her guard, supposedly, constantly teasing the idea that she is going to get real and honest with the audience. You almost believe her, only to have her yank the poignancy away like Lucy pulling the football. It’s to her and Burnham’s credit that the show never gives in to trying to redeem itself after all the absurdity that has transpired with some truly sentimental message, however often it seems on the verge. For all these emotional red herrings, every segment is going to end in laughs. But will the whole thing end in tears?
Sorry, that’s not a rhetorical question. “Kate” does have an actual plot, of sorts, and it comes down to: Will she be able to make herself cry, on cue, on camera? — as if that skill were the true, sole test of an actor’s professional and personal mettle. No spoilers here on whether that quest is ultimately successful; it’s enough to know that the odds favor you shedding a tear —of laughter; yes, you got it — before she ever succeeds in conquering her dry-eyed demons.
A big screen is employed, at which the Playhouse feels less like an AMC than an IMAX, where we see her greatly magnified face doing its best to evoke physical sorrow. Her rubber-facedness in these segments has been previously compared to Jim Carrey’s; that feels apt enough, although I also thought of Laura Dern’s legendarily twisted expression of anguish near the end of “Blue Velvet.” (Speaking of Lynch, there may be slight echoes of the audition or rehearsal scenes in “Mulholland Drive” and “Inland Empire” felt here. This show gets almost that weird, in certain moments, in looking in on place where an abundance of self-consciousness can become a hall of mirrors.)
For all of its occasionally heady moments, the main effect of “Kate” will be to leave audiences with a giddy after-taste. Following the opening-night performance, you could spot people scrolling through Berlant’s profile on IMDB, likely to see what else she’s done in a similar vein. And why wouldn’t they? Not because that sardonic video prologue begged them to do so. It’s just that once you’ve seen “Kate,” you’d pretty much follow her anywhere.
“Kate” is performed at the Pasadena Playhouse through Feb. 11. Tickets are available here.
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