Put a Mustache on It: Working Out the Genre-Bending in Natalie Palamides’s Nate

Natalie Palamides as Nate. Photo: Nick Rasmussen

Editor’s note: It’s difficult to categorize Natalie Palamides’s Nate, which contains elements from comedy, theater, and various other types of performance. So we asked theater critic Helen Shaw and comedy critic Kathryn VanArendonk to see it together and then talk through their collective review. It’s also worth noting that this conversation—though it doesn’t exactly “spoil” the show, in the usual sense of that word—does reveal quite a bit of what happens.

Helen Shaw: My goodness — Kathryn, have you ever seen anything like Nate before?

Kathryn VanArendonk: I have not! Let’s start with a little description of what Nate is?

H.S.: Bold. Well, my best approximation would be that it’s drag-king performance without queerness, a kind of bouffon, transgressive, shock-comedy exploration of masculinity, with top notes of Peggy Shaw and bottom notes of, well, bottoms. Natalie Palamides becomes Nate, a mustachioed, protein-powder-guzzling, bros-before-bitches macho-dude, who’s working out some pretty serious emotional issues around consent.

K.V.A.: Although the emotional dimensions of the consent themes don’t show up until later, the bro-ness starts right up top. The show begins with Nate riding onto the stage on a tiny motorbike. He’s wearing no shirt under his lumberjack jacket, his chest is covered with immense, curly, drawn-on chest hairs, and he begins performing all of the most absurdly masculine things he can manage — he chugs stuff; he makes an audience member come up onstage so he can jump over them on his motorbike. At one point he fills his mouth with Muscle Milk, blows it out in a cloud, and lights it on fire, creating a small-but-impressive protein-rich fireball. The immediate impression is of performing maleness every way he can.

H.S.: Except, crucially, that he’s also shotgunning LaCroix. There is the scent of Berry in the air; I know it well.

K.V.A.: Ha, yes. And the LaCroix is, maybe unexpectedly, sort of fundamental to the definition of this performance? We need to be convinced of Nate’s masculinity, but we also need to be convinced that it’s this showy, draggy, fake thing, and pulling out a cooler of seltzer and offering LaCroix to the audience is one of the first ways Palamides makes it clear that we’re allowed to laugh at Nate’s bravado.

H.S.: The ways that Nate imitates macho behavior (crushing cans on his head, riding a motorcycle with a sign that says I ♥ TITS) but fails to actually be macho (there’s always a sweet, let-me-get-you-a-LaCroix vibe; he wears a shiny white helmet) is why it’s so gentle. Nate also starts out by smashing an egg on his helmet, which was the one truly shocking part for me. Food safety, Nate!

K.V.A.: Clearly you didn’t see the finale of Watchmen, Helen! But the idea of what works as shocking is important here. Eventually, Nate’s antics work their way up to what’s essentially a parable of consent, winding their way through audience participation, some very sad onstage showers, and a story involving a mannequin named Ms. Jackson. By the end, Nate is overwhelmed after a breakup, does something he regrets, and is truly uncertain about whether it’s just a point of regret or something truly wrong. I’m curious, Helen — it feels like much of Nate is played for shock, but most of it also feels like all of the familiar things “the conversation” has been about for a few years now. Do you think its effectiveness relies on shocking you? (Do you think it was effective?)

H.S.: Hmmm. Good question [stalling]. Here is the part that pushed my little buttons: Nate’s persona is, despite its obvious falsity, something that genuinely gives Palamides permission and strength. Nate’s various stages of nudity — that drawn-on hair shows up in some very interesting places — are absolutely unshocking until Nate pulls off his mustache. The whole time we are watching Nate, we are looking at lady parts! Boobs for days! Yet the mustache kind of covers it all up. Even my Episcopalian prude self wasn’t shocked, because maleness makes toplessness profoundly non-transgressive. (Palamides is showing some deep clown-savvy here. You can do things “behind the red nose” that you could never do “straight.”)

K.V.A.: Yeah, it’s remarkable how much work that mustache does. And yet, the audience-participation segments demonstrate that as Nate, Palamides still needs to do some convincing. There’s a portion where Nate invites a man onstage to wrestle him, and insists that the audience member take his shirt off. Nate flicks the man’s nipples, invites the guy to flick Nate’s nipples, and then Palamides watches in delight as the guy stands there in discomfort, wondering whether he’s actually being given permission to play-hit a woman.

H.S.: Here’s the shocking stuff: Palamides is actually attacking, or at least questioning, the way we’ve valorized verbal consent. The bit she does with the audience where she makes us chant “Ask! Ask! Ask! All you’ve got to do is ask!” starts to kind of go bitter in your mouth when you see the ways that asking can still become confusing. Palamides’s wrestling partner was very squeamish around the nip-flicks, but then he really did body-slam Nate on those pink mats. There was danger in the half nelson, and the performer had asked him to do it, and yet there was a frisson of real-life harm around it.

K.V.A.: One moment that I don’t think quite worked, although I could see what Palamides might’ve been going for: The “Ask! Ask! Ask!” chant happens early in the show, and while the chant is going, Nate pulls out an enormous log and starts wailing on it with a hatchet. It’s another of Nate’s over-the-top masculine activities, but it also allows Palamides, as Nate, to join in the audience chants of “Ask! Ask!” with “Ax! Ax!” I can’t decide if that’s too obvious or not obvious enough?

H.S.: I think there’s a lot of misdirection going on. Nate is carrying out an obvious project, which is to make a clown character that lets Palamides do anything. (Her director, Philip Burgers, who goes by Dr. Brown, is a clowning teacher.) It’s a show about giving permission; she finds a persona that automatically grants her all sorts of wild latitude to do things like harass the audience and grab, tenderly, one fellow’s good china. And since there’s a very clear, surface-level equation between those two permissions, and we catch up to her idea pretty quickly, moments like the Ask/Ax moment can seem maybe a little easy? It’s like, Nate, we already gotchu.

K.V.A.: When the ending rolls around, though, that shallowness feels more like straightforwardness, in a way that I do think plays to Nate’s benefit. Here’s a question: The reason we’re doing this chat is because you are a theater critic and I am sometimes a comedy critic, and we went to this show together because … what is it? It is very clearly not stand-up, right?

H.S.: There used to be a performer called the Red Bastard who was big (?) in downtown circles, and he was like Nate: grotesque, sweet, a little sexy, absolutely out to torture the audience. He wore a giant red balloon suit, so that wasn’t politically shaded in the way wearing a motorcycle bro-suit is, but it had that same excitement to it — a little sadistic thrill. And I think Palamides is in the Bastard’s rank — a genuinely sharp, winning, and wicked bouffon, with a show that should probably be at midnight on a Friday instead of 7:30 on a Tuesday.

K.V.A.: Agreed. It’s almost hard to believe how well Nate works, and it’s entirely because of Palamides’s energy. (In one of my favorite moments from our show, Nate has to chide a bashful audience member he’s invited onto the stage to show “a little stage presence!”) Regardless, no: It is not any kind of stand-up comedy. But it’s maybe about stand-up comedy, in the same way that it’s also about pushing the boundaries of what the audience finds funny, about ideas of permission and consent that are implicit in all theater performance and explicit in most conversations about —ahem — some powerful male comedians in the last few years.

H.S.: I mean, I never thought I’d be laughing at a show that has a rape not-a-joke-exactly in it. I am a tart, lemon-mouthed little Puritan around rape jokes most of the time, but Palamides is good enough to come up with a way to get them into her show. I will tell you that simply writing that sentence has actually made my stomach turn! I guess I was shocked after all!

K.V.A.: Hooray for shock! This is also what makes Nate feel so close to the interesting stuff happening in stand-up now, even if it is formally doing something quite different. Some of the most insightful comedians working, especially women, are trying to figure out rape jokes — Cameron Esposito has a whole special called Rape Jokes, in fact. But stand-ups almost always come at a thing from a distance. They are narrators of their own lives (or fictionalized versions). Nate is really about how embodying the joke changes the equation.

H.S.: Embodiment! Prayer-hands emoji! That’s how we know that even though they perform at Improv Asylum, the show is “theater.” You will pry it out of theater’s cold, dead hands.

K.V.A.: Well, that’s it! We solved it! What Nate is, but also all of consent culture.

Nate is at Improv Asylum through February 16.

Put a Mustache on It: Working Out the Genre-Bending in Nate