Saturday, August 18, 2012

Daniel Kitson's Where Once Was Wonder: A Review

To the women who have emailed Kitson complaining that his new look has made him less attractive he says, "I cannot fuck the love of an absent father into you."*  A newly shaved Kitson (no hair, no beard--well a bit of stubble for both) has returned to stand-up comedy with a roaring vengeance and if you're going to bother emailing him back when he sends out a mailing to his 20,000 person email list the least you could offer him is sex in a ditch.  He hastens to add that's a joke; he's received five emails about it already.

Where Once Was Wonder is Daniel Kitson’s new stand-up show after a three year absence and he's been touring with it since the spring.  He continues to use a story-based format for this show but it's not just the same dreamy, sweet stories of self-deprecation and quiet observation that he's done in the past.  Alongside those stories about love, family, support, and friendship is the trenchant Kitson who can't really be too self-deprecating anymore about his looks when he gets so much "first class minky."**  As one of my twitter followers points out even his new opening music has an edge.

Kitson is redefining himself, his work and his subject matter--but what has not changed is that he's a top-notch comedian and hair or no hair he's got a lot to say and an eager fan-base to hear it.  This 100 minute (sometimes longer) show on at midnight sold out in 43 minutes when tickets went on sale at the Edinburgh Fringe.

I had seen segments of this show when he was doing some work-in-progress shows in New York in January.  But nothing prepared me for how he would take these ostensibly disparate pieces (each funny in their own right) and seamlessly weave them together into a “blistering piece of stand-up.”  He’s advertised this as a show about his view of life and how the impossible becoming the inevitable.  He tells three separate stories to illustrate his thesis.  He tells the story of how he shaved off all the hair on the top and bottom of his head to show that he will not be defined by what he looks like (only to be redefined by what he looks like now).  He tells the story of how he flew across the world to tell a friend he was in love with her to show that we are not defined by the people we love (except that they influence our thinking and change how we look at the world).   He tells the story of how he cut the head off a baby pig to show that we are not defined by our actions (but by showing up at his friend’s house on the wrong day, he becomes defined by his actions).

With each story and each "absolute" principle he lays out, he later tears that same exact principle down. He takes each personal philosophy and skewers it. He lists upfront things that drive him crazy about comedy such as comedians calling their work dangerous, comics using personal anecdotes in their comedy, comics doing bits that are just examples of saying something witty to a stranger, and using lists as a comic device.  He then proceeds to do all of those things and pointing them out along the way (I particularly liked his description of the film Con Air and how he used it to illustrate one of his points—weirdly Con Air is a film I must watch when it comes on TV no matter what, no matter how many times I’ve seen it before). 

You might not be blamed (at least by me) for missing these thought strands because you might be laughing so hard you can’t really keep an eye out for the sophisticated tendrils of his comic structure.  But it’s there (and probably a lot more I could not spot).

After seeing his dizzying play, As of 1.52pm on Friday April 27th, 2012, This Show Has No Title, at the Traverse Theatre the same day as this stand-up show I felt a little woozy about what I actually know about Daniel Kitson.   I think that is his intent.  In both shows he shares things that "feel" personal but deconstructs them so much you have to assume some of it is fiction or a joke.  But it's nearly impossible to know where the reality and the comedy split.  He says he's got a compulsory need to confess.  But is that the truth or just set-up for an excellent joke about teenage masturbation (after confessing every teenage masturbatory act to his father and his father having had "the talk" with him several times already and his father comes to the conclusion that "I'm trying to love you unconditionally but you're making it difficult.").

There was a moment the second time I saw this show where his brain went to a strange place. He was supposed to introduce a scene by saying he and his friend were in the car and he was driving her home. Instead his brain started to tell a story where he was alone in car. He wondered aloud what story his brain was going to tell. He noted quickly that he has to stop his brain from actually revealing anything about himself and get back to the actual show.

He reveals and he obscures with such skill that there are only three things I can say for sure about Daniel Kitson:

1) Daniel Kitson has a keen sense of smell.  (Do not peel an orange or fart nearby him as he will stop the show and try to get to the bottom of this.  He stopped both shows I saw based on smell investigations.)

2) Daniel Kitson is easily distracted by movement.  (He stopped the show for a girl sneezing who looked to him like she was potentially vomiting into her hands.  He stopped the show for both angry and bored facial expressions from people in the front row.  And for heaven's sake please don't talk during the show.  There was a whole breakdown of the show whilst Kitson provided libations to one side of the room from the other side of the room's drink.  I felt bad for fanning myself lest it be a fluttering distraction but it was HOT in the Stand.  Anyway, I apologize.)

3) Toby is Daniel Kitson's favorite character on the West Wing.***

Everything else is a complete mystery and that’s how he likes it (though I'd like to believe he wore a waistcoat as a child when he was obsessed with magic). And why not. It’s not about the man. It’s about the comedy. So what about the comedy.  It’s as good as Kitson says it is (I suspect he's his own toughest critic and it's not audiences as much as his own internal drive that pushes him to be better and better). 
Whether he's discussing the fact that the “semiotics of facial hair changed" or assumptions people made about him—beard, glasses, knitwear must mean he reads a lot of books, be generally a nice guy and would never slap a woman’s tits during sex. “Not true,” he says—each segment seemed to be funnier than the last.

And I don't want to give the impression the entire show was some sort of arrogant forum to discuss his sexual prowess.  He manages to be both arrogant and self-deprecating in equal measure and pulling it all off with charm (I am reminded of a line from his play where his girlfriend character says she can't quite decide if she finds him "annoying or charming."  The fictional version of Kitson replies "If you're on the fence, go with charming.") 

As he often does with his storytelling, he can be thoughtful and touching like when he talks about being in denial over being in love with his friend.  He did not even realize how lonely he was until he tries to befriend the mouse he sees in his livingroom (quite the opposite reaction David O'Doherty has when he encounters a mouse in his house). Or rather than be a New Year's Eve guest with a silly gift, by arriving on the wrong night to his friend's house, he becomes the friend who had no New Year’s plans who has foisted his loneliness upon them.  His story about getting glasses as a young boy is there to illustrate one of his points (perhaps even if you have the most loving, supporting parents, they can still miss the fact that their child is basically blind) but I remember him telling it in New York and it stopped my heart. 

His gyroscopic perspective moves so seamlessly around all sides of the arguments.  When he talks about a time when he was a man OUT of love, he was constantly being told by people IN love that even though he could not imagine it, he would not always be where he was right now.  He turns it back on them noting neither would they necessarily.  Biting, sharp and true.

Anyone who lives with certainty that their point of view is absolutely right should not run into Kitson in a dark alley as he will knock the cock out of their cocksureness.

But what does all of it mean?  He quotes a Spanish footballer who (according to Kitson) once said that “result is an imposter” in football-- a positively anathema thing to say about football.  Maybe this is not about the result.  Maybe it's not about concluding who Kitson is (a confessional smell-seeker? A man determined to redefine himself? A man in flux?).  Maybe it's about letting Kitson explore personas (the man who loves uncertainty, the man who hates uncertainty, the man who believes in heroism of unrequited love, the man who finds unrequited love selfish and creepy) because as he oscillates from one principled stance to its opposite he finds humor and truth in each character portrait.

Or is it that contradictions are inherently human?  I saw a number of plays at the Edinburgh Fringe this week (Chapel Street, Oh the Humanity) that reminded me of this point.  We don't always speak the truth.  We don't always know what we believe.  We often do not see our own contradictions as we do not look at ourselves and our pronouncements with any perspective.  Kitson, as he's done before with his story-shows, holds up a mirror to his audience giving us a whole new vantage point on things we thought we knew.

We are not fixed creatures.  We change, inside and out because of who we meet, what we experience and what we do.  Kitson's thesis of the impossible becoming the inevitable reminds us that our security, confidence or certainty in a moment, belief, or place in our life is often unwound, reframed, changed and undone.  But this life lesson is delivered with laughter and heart.

No question, I find him charming.

*As with all Kitson shows I could not take notes so the quotes are my best estimation.

** I'll be honest I don't know how to spell this word.  In my mind I immediately spelled it "Minke" like the whale.  For some reason that made me laugh. 

 ***I might be totally wrong about that.

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