theater review

Theater Review: Daniel Kitson Keeps Only Things That Spark No Joy Whatsoever

Daniel Kitson does not like photos of his stage performances. But this is him. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Nearly everything Daniel Kitson says in the fumbly, bumbly beginning of Keep is a big fib. Seemingly improvised asides turn out to be core principles; doubts turn out to be certainties. He’s a wonderful liar, a “distractible” storyteller who loves reverse-heckling his audience (thoughts and prayers for the person who dropped a clattery thing during Thursday’s show). But behind his woolly beard and unthreatening sweater, he’s a laser-focused master craftsman. In the tricky monologue Keep, he’s so delighted by the perfection of his own herringbone carpentry that he turns the piece around to show us the back. Look how smoothly all these details link to one another, he seems to say. See how snug the join is?

Theoretically, the British Kitson has gathered us together to listen to a list that he’s made of things in his house. There’s a card catalogue onstage that’s a head taller than he is. One drawer contains all the things in the guest bathroom; there are several drawers for the garden, which contains, bewilderingly, a urinal; a full row and a half index his study. It feels like something we can do—understand a person through the cloud of satellite detritus that surrounds him. And Kitson, for all his many monologues, still has the glamour of an opaque personality. I have been listening to him for years, and I’m still dying to know where the truth begins. Obviously we know he’s not giving us unvarnished reality, but perhaps he really does have two sets of unused bricks out back. Our minds churn. What does that tell us? Is he a hoarder? A busy guy? An unproductive optimist?

As Kitson reads the cards, he lets us snoop vicariously around his home. He drops kernels of wisdom about memory and regret; he also keeps wandering off topic. Everything in the audience throws him for a loop. The night I saw it, a woman laughed at a joke, and he stopped to point out that she was doing it only to establish a bond—she had laughed when he said something particularly British. One giggle prompted a disquisition on sincerity and performance. Kitson, who pretends to be a befuddled old professor-bear type, begins to find cards out of place, which causes further digressions about how honesty works onstage. He points out how much credit monologuists and comedians get for confessing their sins: “What people remember is the courage of the disclosure as opposed to the details of the harrowing deed,” he tuts. Our ears cock forward—what is he confessing to? Does it have to do with the emptiness of the house, the fact that he lives there alone?

He’s certainly melancholy. People go to Kitson for the pleasure of feeling the tumblers in a lock turn—as components drop into place, it can feel as if we’re reading a tightly plotted mystery. But the sadness in his work is what makes it addictive. There’s certainly a little frisson of sado-masochism in the enjoyment: He mocks us; he mocks himself even more savagely. It’s self-delusion that he reviles most, or, rather, the way we use truth to mask deeper falsehoods. He tells us about a phrase he’s said about his romantic life many times: “I may have been careless, but I’ve never been cruel!” His face twists. He’s more than aware that having a well-turned little description for one’s own behavior—so brave to admit it!—isn’t the same thing as being mindful or kind. He hints again and again that he has caused himself and others pain.

Hints are all we get, though. Keep is a trick mirror, which seems to show us an accurate reflection (a complete catalogue, including teddy bear!) but is actually a window into another fiction. His “honesty” snaps shut like a trap on your hand. Kitson comes to us about once a year with his shaggy-dog stories that eventually reveal themselves to be ruthlessly groomed poodles. Keep is one of my favorites, though not because of the brilliance of his twisty puzzle-box structure. This box, like Pandora’s, is full of pain. It might be Kitson’s, certainly. Maybe each delicate implication about how rueful he feels is true. But it doesn’t matter. Like Pandora’s, the box doesn’t just contain a person’s evils—it contains the things that beset us all. Keep holds the way we defend ourselves with admissions of guilt, the way we polish up our well-turned lies about ourselves, the way we prefer objects as aides-memoires to the memories themselves. Never trust people who tell you what kind of people they are, says Kitson, and I felt like he was talking directly to me. What a diagnostician he is, I thought, as the pin went into my little butterfly spine. It made me positively wriggle with pleasure to hear a hard truth. But then, that’s just the kind of person I am.

Keep is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through December 19.

Review: Daniel Kitson Keeps Only Things That Spark No Joy