Alone Together

11. February, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #9: The Companion Piece, Z Space, January 27.

Beth Wilmurt and Christopher Kuckenbaker in The Companion Piece. Photo by Pak Han.

By Sam Hurwitt

There’s no business like show business for anxiety and desperation. It’s easy to quibble about whether that’s actually true–there’s always plenty of angst to go around–but that’s the feeling one gets from The Companion Piece, the latest collectively devised work directed by Mark Jackson, now finishing its run at Z Space in association with Encore Theatre Company.

Upon entering, the audience is greeted by an old-fashioned curtain sporting a large painted portrait of a tuxedoed, mustachioed vaudeville performer and a banner reading “The Sensation of the Stage.” Soon said sensation comes out and does a manic dance with a big gaping smile, then croons a seemingly tender by barbed, old-timey song that professes, “I’ve never needed someone less than I’ve never needed you.” He tells some corny jokes, gyrating his hips to a vintage “ahooga” car horn sound, does some simple magic tricks, recites some cheesy pickup lines and a soliloquy from Richard II, and at one point just makes smacking, chewing noises robotically for nearly a minute.

Usually a sound designer, which he does for this show too, Jake Rodriguez gives a masterful if unnerving performance as the Sensation. There’s always a hint of desperation in his act, from his wide-eyed, toothy leer to the way he deflates when his show’s over.

Then he raises the curtain to reveal a large empty stage with a lot of stuff lying around the rings: rolling ladders, racks of clothes, an old piano, an oversize trunk, most or all of which will be used in the course of the piece. He rolls one of the ladders up to an otherwise unreachable door with a star on it, high on the rear brick wall, and disappears inside it for pretty much the rest of the show.

Beth Wilmurt (who conceived the piece and, appropriately enough, sometimes calls herself Idea Girl in it) and Christopher Kuckenbaker enter in plain clothes and indulge in a touchy-feely talkback about a performance we haven’t yet seen, responding to unheard questions from the audience. They’re mild-mannered and self-effacing, all too readily confessing to mistakes, Wilmurt looking vaguely embarrassed as Kuckenbaker does a slapstick demonstration. Finally the talkback dissolves into a rambling monologue by Wilmurt about her hair, which she continues without missing a beat as Kuckenbaker takes away her chair and microphone.

He sets up a scene in which they sing “If I Loved You” from Carousel, but they’re disconnected from each other, always competing for the limelight. There’s an interesting bit in which each says “I got it!” then demonstrates an isolated bit of vaudeville shtick while the other offers halfhearted encouragement, using exactly the same words every time, like a ritual. There’s a lot of this tightly choreographed repetition in the piece, as in many Mark Jackson pieces: Each of them comes running out half-dressed from one of a pair of dressing room doors to rearrange the props, then the other runs out to undo what the other one just did, with escalating frustration. Dressed as Cyrano, Kuckenbaker repeats “I don’t know” in agitation as Wilmurt sings the 1894 chestnut “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” finally confessing, “It’s just the songs, they make me uncomfortable.”

It goes on like that in isolated bits and pieces for the rest of the show, with the two performers lacking self-confidence and craving validation, but always undermining each other in their thirst for the limelight. There’s a very funny bit in which Wilmurt tries to prompt Kuckenbaker with lines that he gets consistently, hilariously wrong, seemingly petrified as he stares sidelong at the audience while demanding that she fetch various props. After an uncomfortable argument in the aisle about the performance, they steer the wheeled ladders around in an elegant sort of dance. ¬†Although they perform any number of bits, what we’re seeing is not their act so much as the preparation of the act, something they know will change their lives forever if they can ever get it together.

While the Sensation seemed to be performing in the 1920s or so, the other two are clearly creatures of the present day, although the act they’re working on is in a similar style. One seeming flaw in the piece is that its two parts are never linked, except very loosely thematically. The Sensation doesn’t interact with the duo–he just does his routine at the beginning and again at the end, and isn’t seen nor mentioned in between. Each member of the duo gives a speech about the rhapsodic effect they imagine their act will have on the audience, and Kuckenbaker’s vision is about inspiring some kid in the audience to want to be just like him, and you can imagine him having the same reaction to seeing Rodriguez’s old-timey solo performer, or maybe seeing someone inspired by the Sensation. In any case, they’re of a lineage.

One a more abstract level, all the first performer’s songs and jokes are ultimately about being alone and not needing anybody else, and in some ways all of the duo’s routines come down to the frustrations and dysfunctions of working together. Not for nothing do the characters have no names, because they’re really embodiments of the loneliness of going it solo and the tension of collaboration, proving, as the song goes, that two is “the loneliest number since the number one.” It’s just that in this case two plus one never quite adds up to a larger whole.

The Companion Piece runs through February 13 at Z Space @ Theater Artaud, 450 Florida St., San Francisco.

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