Only Connect: Z Space’s “The Companion Piece”

Jake Rodriguez headlines the festivities in Z Space's "The Companion Piece." Photo: Pak Han.

Mark Jackson’s staging of Mary Stuart was one of the highlights of Bay Area theater last year, and he and his Mary Stuart star Beth Wilmurt have teamed up again to provide what will surely be one of the most intriguing productions of 2011.  Joining forces with the amazing Christopher Kuckenbaker, a performer I’ve delighted in watching over the years, and the brilliant sound designer Jake Rodriguez, who also happens to be a very fine actor, they’ve collaborated on a new absurdist vaudeville for Z Space, entitled The Companion Piece.  It doesn’t quite match up to that other classic of absurdism with vaudeville roots, Waiting for Godot, but in its quirky rhythms, audacious inventiveness, and masterful stagecraft, there are flashes of true brilliance.

A meditation on companionship and solitude, The Companion Piece also explores the motivations of the artistic impulse.  Theater is of course a form of communication:  It begins in solitude, the playwright creating the script, and ends in cooperation as the director, actors, designers, and myriad others come together to fully present the piece, including even more people as an audience shares each performance. The Companion Piece too was conceived in solitude.  After reading the 2000 book A General Theory of Love, Drs. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannan’s beautifully literate examination of the neurological and chemical origins of love, Wilmurt was struck with the idea of presenting the book’s ideas theatrically in a vaudeville, and she, Jackson, Kuckenbaker, and Rodriguez began devising the show.  (Designer Gabe Maxson’s sure-handed use of light, especially his employment of the stark and isolating spotlight, is also an important facet.)  The work thus grew out of improvisation and group effort, but the final product is fixed, presented consistently at each performance.

It’s Rodriguez who opens the evening, standing in front of a painted drop with a caricature of himself and the words “The Sensation of the Stage” emblazoned underneath.  He sports a seedy tuxedo and greased-back hair, his face powdered and rouged, a pencil mustache adorning his upper lip.  In a voice that’s part borscht-belt comedian, part carnival sideshow barker, he delivers an astonishing monologue in a rapid-fire delivery.  Rodriguez has a manic gleam in his eye as he spouts his bad jokes, performs a few magic tricks, mangles a few lines from Shakespeare and other sources, and introduces in myriad oblique ways the show’s themes, relentlessly promoting himself along the way.  He sings a few songs, which I believe are originals: “I’ve Never Needed Anyone Less Than I’ve Never Needed You” and one that’s probably called “With You/Without You.”  (“With you, would my life stop before I reach the top?”) The audience laughs at the wrong times: never in response to his actual jokes, which are more desperate than funny.  “Say ‘knock, knock’!” he hectors the audience, which obliges him.  “Who’s there?” he asks, and silence reigns. “They don’t get it,” he mutters. And he does the routine again, with the same results.

The monologue is finely honed, down to the number of chomps he takes on a piece of gum, but behind it all is a despairing futility.  Rodriguez the character knows that the audience doesn’t comprehend what he’s doing, but he gives it all he’s got, and Rodriguez the actor conveys the irony and the pathos in the character’s actions.  The communication is all one way, except for brief glimpses of comprehension by the audience.  We get it, and we don’t get it.  He raises the drop behind him, picks up his props, wheels a giant metal staircase to a ridiculous door, 20 feet off the ground and adorned with a gold star.  He ascends the staircase and disappears behind the door.

Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker enter, conversing in a modern, naturalistic style, wearing plaid slacks and colored t-shirts.  They’re actors who have just completed their own show, and they grab a microphone and begin conducting a talkback with some unseen audience.  Kuckenbaker speechifies about how “comedy is really a science,” and then with an instant, invisible shift, we’re in a pre-show talk.  They ask for single words from the same unseen audience, presumably to be used in some improv routine that will come up.  “Door,” “synchronicity,” and “brilliant” are the apparent results.  (“Brilliant?  When’s that gonna happen?” grouses Wilmurt.)  Wilmurt starts musing about how they need a structure: “Improvisation is great, but…,” and a funny bit ensues about her hair improvising until she “choreographed” it. While she’s talking, Kuckenbaker begins running around, playing with props, searching for some funny piece of business, until Wilmurt too begins brainstorming about what they could do together.  But Kuckenbaker tends towards physical clowning while Wilmurt wants to incorporate musical numbers.  A tug of war ensues, with Kuckenbaker trying to set up a Cyrano de Bergerac skit with a puffy tunic and fake nose, singing The Police’s “Roxanne,” while Wilmurt wheels out a tinny upright piano and tries to change into a red tango dress, playing snippets of songs on the keyboard and on a ukelele.  The two run all over the cavernous Z Space stage (the former Theatre Artaud venue), flinging their bodies around with seeming abandon as they try to have their vision be the dominant one, without seeming as if they’re taking over.  (They constantly apologize for quashing the other’s ideas.)

At another point Kukenbaker is caught by the spotlight, clad in nothing but his comically striped briefs.  He immediately adopts a humorously presentational pose, but then he’s stuck, frozen.  He desperately grimaces towards Wilmurt, and she darts about the dusky, dusty theater, rummaging through costume racks and properties collections searching for something, anything for him to do.  It’s the old actor’s nightmare, caught on stage in your underwear with no idea of what’s required of you.  But Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker the artists also realize that’s what an actor has to do to be successful, to expose one’s self to the audience, no matter how terrifying.  And by extension, that’s also what has to happen in a relationship.

When the two do a simple dance together to “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” in ridiculous yellow pinafores and black bowler hats, it’s joyous—two bodies in unison, but when Wilmurt breaks off because she has a “better” idea and Kuckenbaker doggedly continues on, sadness pervades the stage.

Christopher Kuckenbaker and Beth Wilmurt. Photo: Pak Han

The sound and lighting cues interrupt and change the routines as well, forcing the performers to adapt when a snatch of music or a shift in the lights threatens to throw them off-course.

There’s an offstage argument between Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker, about the way the production is shaping up, and a lyrical waltz with two large rolling metal staircases, guided by the two actors.  You fear they’ll crash, but they never do.  You hope they’ll meet up, so that the performers can climb up and reach each other that way, but that doesn’t happen either.  The staircases end up side by side, striving towards the audience, not each other.

Wilmurt has a wonderful singing voice—an actress’s voice.  There’s no showiness, just a clarity that gets at the heart of a lyric, no matter how silly.  She and Kuckenbaker are about the same height, but her long legs give the illusion that she towers over him, while his protruding ears and receding hairline somehow make him seem shorter.  Kuckenbaker is a physical marvel, with clowning skills and postures reminiscent of Harry Langdon, and he’s fearless as a performer.  The two work together beautifully, and their energy is completely present, completely alive.  The two performers aren’t waiting for Godot, they’re waiting for each other– not to arrive, but to make each other better, and it’s just as vain a wait.

It’s difficult to convey the amount of beauty, humor, and skill in these routines, with their misleading sense of haphazardness.  It’s clear how much care has been lavished on what we’re seeing.  While on one level the narrative seems disjointed and scattered, as mercurial as a person’s moods, on another we see how finely wrought it is, how much work and intelligence went into making it that way. Even in moments of stillness, there’s no awkwardness in the staging, no wavering of the audience’s focus.

The problem lies in the last two speeches by Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker.  They take turns expressing their hopes for audience reaction, that we’ll understand their special brilliance, that they’ll connect with us in a new and dazzling way.  But in the naïve language used, the text doesn’t match the eloquence of their movement and their stagecraft.  When Wilmurt talks of being recognized as the “idea girl” and hopes that someone in the audience will communicate that to her fifth grade teacher who never believed in her, it’s too blatant, too clumsy.  Of course the desire for some kind of validation and retribution, even revenge, is a part of the artistic drive, as is the desire for appreciation and, yes, fame. An artist wants people to see her work, after all.  And it’s clear that Wilmurt the writer/creator ironically undercuts the speech: It’s Kuckenbaker who is carefully guiding a giant iron cross beam from which Wilmurt is suspended on a trapeze as she speaks: He slowly swings her out in front of the audience: No matter how talented you are, you can’t go it alone.  She even begins by proclaiming “When you see my act—our act…,” acknowledging Kukenbaker in a way he didn’t for her, but this nod to partnership is dropped as Wilmurt continues describing her dreams of connection and recognition.

I realize I’m probably asking for the impossible here.  These speeches need to be breathtaking, more sublime than anything else we’ve seen or heard so far.  They need to incorporate the myriad tones that have preceded it, combining the roles of character, actor, writer, and creator and playing with the conflicts and, yes, synchronicities of all of them.  They also need the sense of mystery that pervades so much else in the play.  Despite being beautifully delivered, the words themselves fail. As words so often do.

The coda to these speeches catches some of what’s missing in the text.  A curtain is hung between the two staircases, and a magician’s disappearing closet is placed under the curtain.  Kuckenbaker and Wilmurt repeatedly try to make the other disappear but they won’t cooperate with each other, and the trick doesn’t happen.  Until it does.  Kuckenbaker vanishes and Rodriguez steps out of the box.  As he repeats his opening monologue, Wilmurt again lowers the scenic drop seen at the opening, and The Companion Piece ends as it began: a lone performer trying to connect, but aware he’s failing.

What Jackson and his colleagues accomplish with The Companion Piece, is so rich, so daring, that I wish I could say its failure is small by comparison. Ironically, that failure is the failure of many human interactions.  A connection can feel so deep, so true, that when it breaks in some vital moment, when one person can’t see something important in exactly the way the other person does, it’s often devastating.  The Companion Piece breaks your heart, but in the wrong way.  That you dare to hope it might do so truly, artistically, is a major, major achievement.

"What about this?" Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker cook up a show. Photo: Pak Han

The Companion Piece plays from now until February 13 at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA  94110.  For more information, call 415-626-0453 or visit http://www.zspace.org.