Review: Kate Berlant questions this thing we call the self in the clever meta-comedy 'Kate'

What is acting? For Kate, the quasi-autobiographical character in experimental comedian Kate Berlant’s delightfully odd solo show, “Kate,” the answer is the ability to cry on cue.

No matter how sad the thoughts she thinks, no matter how many disappointments and near-traumas she recalls, the tears refuse to fall. The camera magnifies Kate’s emotional constipation. The strain at times is monstrous, hilariously so, as the actor squeezes her face into a ball of Silly Putty, her nose collapsing into her eyes as they all fall into the maw of her mouth.

Trust me, you’ve never seen a show quite like “Kate,” which had its opening on Sunday at Pasadena Playhouse in front of a celebrity-packed audience. Berlant — a star of the alt-comedy world who created with John Early the A24/Peacock sketch comedy special "Would It Kill You to Laugh?" — is working here in performance art mode, employing her life, her face and her body as a theatrical canvas to investigate the relationship of acting to this thing we call the self.

A would-be Method actor, Kate enters into a hall of mirrors in which overwrought versions of her life are conjured in fun-house style. She remakes her biography as though it were a tale by Charles Dickens, full of villainous ogres and scrapes with melodramatic disasters.

“Kate” is directed by fellow comedian Bo Burnham with playful archness. It would be inaccurate to say that Berlant breaks the fourth wall regularly, because there really isn’t a metaphorical wall to shatter. Berlant, a gifted physical comic who whipsaws between over-the-top grandeur and abject awkwardness, introduces her situations with a wink — and even the winks are delivered in quotation marks.

The show begins in the lobby, where a shrine to Kate Berlant is set up. Her image is ubiquitous throughout the theater, like a Calvin Klein campaign gone mad. "Kate" merchandise is marketed on the backs of the theater’s staff. The vibe is one of camp send-up of Hollywood narcissism, but irony and egotism are blended like a fine Bordeaux.

One of the show’s funniest bits is the countdown that begins five minutes before Berlant appears on stage. Her career highlights are flashed along with more faux fashion spreads suggesting a serious Brooke Shields complex. There’s even a moment when information about Berlant’s reps appear on screen, in case anyone wants to be in touch with opportunities.

The audience is primed to be in on the joke, but the precise nature of the joke will take some time to sort out. Berlant initially appears in the disguise of a stagehand who chats to the audience about “Ms. Kate” while sweeping the stage.

“I always knew her as an electric and genre-defying stand-up comedian, but she’s trying something new tonight,” he says. “I respect that, she’s not stagnant — she’s brave!”

The character's accent shifts confusingly from Italian American to Cockney. Berlant pokes through her charade to explain that she’s still shedding the choice she made for the London production. “Just be patient with me," she pleads. “Also, I’m sure you’ve heard — the show is good.”

Liberating herself from her costume and unleashing from her cap the waterfall of tresses that she cannot stop running her fingers through, she transforms into Kate, a wide-eyed innocent who grew up “in a small seaport town called Santa Monica,” a city she fumbles to pronounce in an inexplicable Spanish accent. Her hardscrabble youth is marked by intense memories that fated her to a life of performance.

Kate’s father, before he walked out of her life, left her a tantalizing video camera. But her cruel mother, who Berlant plays with an Irish accent even though we’re told she’s Spanish, doesn’t believe this is a suitable gift for her hammy daughter and smashes it on the floor.

“Don’t you know the camera requires subtlety?” her mother says in the broadest of stage brogues. “It even registers thought! Your big, crass style of indication has no use in front of the camera!”

What follows is Kate’s odyssey to New York, her discovery of the theater (much like the porch of her childhood home where her wild imagining had free rein), her encounter with a creepy movie producer who futilely offers coaching tips on screen acting and her humiliating confrontation with her own inability to weep on command after an audition for a movie that requires a biblical flood of tears.

The spotlight awaiting Kate becomes, through the alchemy of lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker, as menacing as an interrogation lamp. Burnham's direction clears the deck for a sustained theatrical closeup on Berlant, whose talents as an actor are evident in the reaction shot she deploys to droll effect. Her character's susceptibility to flattery is conveyed by sudden eye movements and an awakened yearning as inexorable as a plant shifting its roots toward a water source.

Why does Kate have so much trouble accessing her pain and bringing it into the room, as one character describes her own acting process? Kate teases a secret throughout the show, building suspense about the scarring childhood experience that permanently clogged her waterworks.

The horror that Kate shares is of a medical nature. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the disorder in question spoofs the way personal trauma has come to be seen as a badge of authenticity. For those actors who consider crying to be the sine qua non of their art, a sorrowful biography offers a distinct advantage in the Method acting sweepstakes.

Behind it all, of course, is the lust to be seen, to be admired, to be placed at the center of attention. This isn’t an affliction exclusive to actors. Social media has turned a sizable share of the human race into performers, desperate to dazzle and to win sympathy at the same time. "Kate" is as much about acting as it is about the theatricality of everyday life.

Berlant eventually adopts the mask of a frustrated diva, questioning why she’s even bothering to put on a show in Pasadena. “Theater is dead,” she erupts after assuring us that this run will not move the needle on her career.

A few minutes later she's backpedaling, blaming her tantrum on caring too much. “I actually believe our humanity is being kept alive in this room right now,” she says. “This is so important. We have to gather!”

By this point, the tears are streaming. What do they mean? The question never loses its fascination during the slippery ride of Berlant’s clever cringe comedy.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.