As audiences file into the Connelly Theater for Kate, they might notice comedian Kate Berlant, of the title, sitting off to the side with a spotlight shining in her face — and on a sign taped to her chest that reads "ignore me." But make no mistake, this is absolutely her show. If the show's name, the photos of her plastered all around the theatre in various sizes (from life-size versions you can get a picture with, to teeny-tiny stickers in even the bathroom stalls), and the replicas of her hometown living room and beach didn't indicate that, the video of Berlant, projected two stories tall, that greets you when you enter the theatre will.
And then Berlant herself walks on stage and immediately commands attention better than all that combined. Ignore her no more — she's about to tell her story, and you'd better listen up.
It's not that she's doing anything grand at the start — in fact, she enters not as herself, but as a custodian, with an outfit and accent resembling Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. "He" reminds us that excellent theatre needs only three simple things: a great performer, a clean stage, and a little bit of magic (this point is punctuated with a handful of glitter). Kate delivers.
Ironically, though, the A League of Their Own and Search Party star, who hasn't performed on the New York stage in 10 years, spends a lot of her stage show talking about her love-hate relationship with camera acting. Her early career journey reads like a laundry list of cliched tropes, but Berlant plays them with a sly yet sincere wink. Her father walked out, her unsupportive mother smashed her beloved film camera, she finally escapes her hometown to find herself in the city, she meets a film producer at a bar who puts her in front of the camera again, but oh, the childhood trauma returns!
It's no surprise then, that Berlant finds the theatre — or rather, on a rainy night, it finds her. (This very venue does, no less, in one of many moments of fiction for the sake of meta-comedy.) Berlant cracks her fair share of jokes about theatre as an old-fashioned form and how performing on this particular stage doesn't mean squat for her career, but she's clearly in love with the art form. When the film producer asks her to act for his camera, her instinct is to go "too big" for his and his lens's liking. That is, her instinct is to act theatrically.
Another of the many capital-T Theatrical aspects of Kate is how Berlant morphs into multiple characters, and all nonetheless reinforce Berlant's whip-smart comedic chops. As herself, she perfectly captures the wide-eyed naivete of a young girl stepping foot in NYC for the first time. As her sharp-tongued mother, Berlant and her head of dark curls make an excellent case for her as Mother Gothel in a live-action Tangled. As a cad at a jazz bar, she elicits five consistent minutes of laughter by flirting at length with a bartender — that is, an unsuspecting audience member.
She ultimately bookends the show as the custodian, who reminds us of something "he" and Berlant have in common: "We believe that a night of theatre can change your life." The ingenuity, comedy, and artistry on display in Kate reminds me why I believe that, too.
Photo credit: Kate Berlant in Kate. (Photo by Emilio Madrid)