comedy review

Kate Berlant’s Mirror Maze

Photo: Emilio Madrid

This review contains spoilers about Kate.

A year or so ago, I saw a comedian’s hour-long autobiographical show. It was a carefully wrought tour through definitive childhood experiences, personality quirks, foundational traumas, and the loneliness of being a person, full of jokes that eventually gave way to scenes of gravity. The hour was individual to the comedian’s life and experiences, but it was also instantly recognizable as being on-trend, where the best and most “important” humor was really about sadness and trauma. The end was designed as a moment of revelation, a bit of stagecraft where props transformed into a portrait and were presented with the satisfying neatness of an algebra solution. Here is the true sum of this person. Here is honesty. How brave to be so vulnerable!

I had largely forgotten about that show until I walked into the lobby of comedian Kate Berlant’s new one-woman show Kate, and I realized that at every turn, Kate is an elaborate joke on that exact style of show I’d seen a year ago. Like much of Berlant’s work, Kate is an embodiment and celebration of performance, a towering and gorgeously produced monument to superficiality, playacting, pleasure, excess, and the self. She’s uninterested in the self we wonder about quietly in the dark nights of our souls, though — Berlant’s obsession is the external self, the selves we project, the selves we curate and manicure and present to others. All that digging down to locate inner truth business? Excavation of trauma as the best way to be vulnerable? Vulnerability as honesty? No, thank you! If that disinterest in interiority has the side effect of making everything feel a little hollow, so be it.

Kate opens before you actually enter the theater. (Excuse me, the theatre.) The lobby is covered with Kate iconography: black-and-white decals of Berlant affixed to every surface; a mannequin displaying the black tank top, belt, jeans, and boots Berlant wears in the show; the word KATE stickered to light switches and outlets; a bright wall with images of Berlant in various mugging poses designed for selfies. Sitting on a bench right next to the box-office desk underneath an enormous close-up photo of her own eyes is Berlant herself, wearing large, dark sunglasses and tapping dispassionately on her phone. The bench she’s sitting on says “KATE.” The sign on her lap says “IGNORE ME.”

Kate’s total commitment to the bit is the show’s most glorious achievement. The show has a plot, sort of. Berlant plays the history of herself as a young person who wants to become a performer. She is herself as a child, dreaming of performing for an audience as she stares out at the stars while sitting on her front porch. She begins acting in front of a camcorder in her childhood bedroom before being chided by her mother (Berlant, again, doing a deliberately nonsensical Irish accent), who insists that Berlant’s affect is too broad and extravagant to work on-camera. The camera is not for her! She should never try it! Then she moves to New York, where she again toys with appearing in movies and is once again crushed to realize her overblown style does not work. At every step of this evolution, Berlant plays to the joke of the premise. Here she is, onstage, performing the hammiest and most absurdly clownish scenes of this tale of woe: being too hammy and clownish to have a screen career.

Throughout the show, she falls out of “character,” interrupting the flow to speak directly to the audience about how the show is going or to converse with a stage manager in the wings about the timing of particular sound cues or technical effects. During some of those interruptions, the house lights come up. After all, we’re performing the role of an audience. Can’t we feel that? Berlant suggests in one of her direct-to-audience interruptions. Aren’t we aware of how much we are participating in this rigamarole, this false theatrical experience? At the same time, Berlant teases a dark secret, something lurking underneath all this overly expressive tropey playfulness. Surely this hidden trauma is the reason she is the way she is. The secret looms, promising the pleasure of disclosure and the existence of some solid footing beneath all this melodrama.

Berlant’s performance throughout is exquisite, impeccable, and absolutely deadpan. In a nightclub scene, she dances with uncanny precision, her too-sharp movements telegraphing parody even as her deathly serious expression screams This is serious! She moves between performance registers with incredible agility. Sometimes the leap from big corny character to dry Kate-as-professional-actor feels like a sudden snap of a finger. Occasionally an astounding parade of different Kates glide across her face in the space of a few seconds, and it feels like watching someone shuffle a deck of playing cards then gracefully fan out all the face cards at once. Here’s the Kate who thinks this is all a joke, then the Kate who cares too much, then the Kate in character as her mother, then the Kate laughing with the audience, then the Kate laughing for the audience. (And the Kate laughing at the audience? Probably!)

The remarkable performative feat is matched and supported by Kate’s incredible production and direction by Bo Burnham, no stranger to playing with the idea that the only truth is performance. The key production choice is a live camera that sits stage right. Throughout the show, Berlant turns to the camera and a black-and-white feed of her face appears on a stage-size screen behind her, transmuting her stage performance into the screen performer her mother insists she is constitutionally incapable of becoming. You end up spending a lot of time during Kate thinking about precisely how her mouth is shaped, about its rubber-band elasticity and its Lucille Ball–esque angles and curves. Whether or not that onscreen image of Berlant is actually live or prerecorded becomes its own joke, and the lag between the stage gesture and the screen both distracts and mesmerizes.

Inevitably, the moment comes when the dark secret must be revealed. All the signifiers that we’re playing a silly game fall away: The house lights come up. She drops all the exaggerated gestures and goofy accents. She tells the crowd they’re free to react however they like — no need to play the good audience. It’s just people being honest with one another for a moment. The retelling starts again in childhood, and it builds to the anticipated moment that peels back all the trauma! And then … splat. The promise of honesty turns out to be another trapdoor. The show crashes to a halt, Berlant throws a tantrum, and then she insists on putting on one more performance to demonstrate that she can, in fact, be vulnerable onscreen. When she finally pulls it off, the audience explodes into applause and relief. She did it! We all did it, together! The “it” is a tear running down her cheek, a piece of physical evidence acting as a symbol of an inner self. The emotional vulnerability of that trendy personal-disclosure comedy is still a performance, that tear says. It is okay to enjoy a performance without needing it to be about something traumatic. But it is harder to love when the central idea of that performance is that performance itself is good. The parody starts to feel like a maze or a haunted house. The first trapdoor through earnestness is a shocking surprise. The fourth gets tiring.

A year ago, I came away from that comedian’s one-man show with a powerfully bad taste in my mouth, my whole body curling away from the too-neat presentation of a performer scripting and acting out honesty. Kate is a clever and often wildly funny refutation of all that self-seriousness, a circus-like counterweight to the idea that humility and intimate personal details are the road to transcendence. In that regard, I was thrilled by Kate, delighted and happily on board for the ride.

Except that during one scene from Kate, Berlant plays a patron in a smoky jazz club, and she holds up a flashlight to pick out a member of the audience to play along as the bartender. In my performance, she selected a man near the back of the orchestra, and, in character as this unflappable patron, asked for his name. “Moss,” he said. Berlant paused. “Moss?” she asked. “Moss.” “… Moss?” A look flashed across Berlant’s face, her lips pursing around what might have been an actually sincere laugh for the tiniest of moments. For a second, she looked legitimately surprised. “So, Moss,” she said, pulling back into character. Kate rolled along, and Kate’s laughter once again took on the brittle quality that communicates that everything is a game. But for an instant, it felt like I’d seen an earnest emotion, and I could not stop longing for more, even as I knew my longing was the butt of Berlant’s joke.

Kate Berlant’s Mirror Maze