Tuesday, June 11, 2013

After the Beginning. Before the End: The Uncertainty of Everything

SPOILER ALERT: If you don't want the show spoiled then you should not read this until after seeing it.

I have shat in the street. I do not shit in the street.— Daniel Kitson paraphrased*

When you share a bit of yourself with others, how you are perceived by them can create a distorted image of who you are? Street-shitter for example. But if our memories of ourselves are inherently untrustworthy, how can you say for sure who you really are?

Like a series of funhouse mirrors bending your reflection as you walk past, Daniel Kitson’s newest sit-down, stand-up show, After the Beginning. Before the End, is a parade of familiar, unfamiliar, slightly pervy, and comical images of his 35-year old self. The show is replete with contradictions, carefully placed structural callbacks, and dick jokes. It's dense, funny, and largely devoid of whimsy.  Kitson manages another dazzling show that's rich in introspection but with just enough devilish contrariness to not take anything too seriously.  

One of the reasons I enjoy Kitson’s work is I like to try and work out what he is doing.  He makes the point in this show that sometimes working things out for yourself is a pleasure unto itself. And this show is no exception. Immediate pleasures abound for the comedy fan or newcomers to Kitson but the underlying structure offers its own value if you enjoy the mental gymnastics.

Sitting at a table with sound equipment on it, Kitson complains about his frustrating tendency to overthink things. He finds himself having such convoluted thought strands that he can no longer distinguish a clear beginning or end to any of his thoughts. In this show, Kitson is cogitating an overarching question about who he is at this point in his life but at each step, each sub-thought about his behavior, his past, his memories, and his feelings are given a rigorous Kitson overthink--he pokes, prods, questions, challenges, reverses himself, reverses his reversal, and wonders if he’s a dickhead, or is that the type of thing a dickhead would think? Or not think.

Into his mental spin-cycle we go, with his sagacious eye for detail, his famous verbal alacrity, and so many fluttering ideas about identity.  Kitson uses himself (or versions of himself) to paint the portrait of a life in-between. Not the picture of adulthood you traditionally imagine, but not quite what he wants either.   As Stephen Sondheim might have written, “How did you get to be here, Mr. Kitson?”

Is this a blip in his life or is this his life? He’s an affluent thirty-something with an excellent pool table (living the dream) but without the “normal” trappings of responsibility (like a relationship or children) and fewer and fewer friends to play pool with (married, moved away, children). He lives without any structure. But in classic Kitson fashion this lifestyle is both an opportunity to celebrate drinking late night coffee because he can do what he likes and it doesn’t matter if he drinks late night coffee because he won’t sleep well anyway because he sleeps alone. Is this freedom or free fall or both?  Is he living an empty life?  If so, should he deal with it with acceptance, defiance, or self-deprecation?  For the audience's sake, Kitson tries all three to great amusement.

Kitson ponders the bigger question of why he has never been in love with someone at the same time they were in love with him. Delving into this inquiry he drifts into an exploration of his sense of self, how ideas of who we are are formed, how others see us, how we try to connect with other people, and how memory, perceptions, feelings, and physical sensations cannot be trusted. He questions everything, which provides a non-stop stream of entertaining incidents to recount to audiences but prevents him from being a relationship. 

This might sound like a highbrow list of concepts or an intense therapy session but fear not Kitson will also tell you about the first dirty dream he can recall having as a child--awkward, hilarious, and vivid.  Ultimately, this is Kitson stand-up even if presented sitting down with formality more associated with his story shows. I heard echoes of his previous stand-up shows (especially as he mulls over issues of communication and connection). And as always he has this way of making a joke, pushing that joke beyond the point you thought it could go, turning it on its head. And with each iteration it gets funnier. Whether he's being reminded by an ex-girlfriend that he once stuck his cock in her car window (he hastens to add, the window was open, he was not being heroic trying to save trapped children or anything) or trying to clear up misconceptions about himself on the internet where he's read that he once played naked Scrabble with a woman to get her into bed (Not true he says, he has too much respect for the game), he's got hilarious stories a plenty. They illustrate his points (dickhead and not dickhead alike). They support his contradictions. They give him an opportunity to talk about his mid-sized penis.**

Opening the show with Talking Heads one night and David Byrne and St. Vincent's album Love This Giant another night, even his musical framework connects to the exploration of the show.  As Hilton Als has written "[David] Byrne's particular brilliance as a songwriter has always drawn on his understanding that some people spend their lives trying to impersonate a 'normal' person without necessarily knowing what that means....That persona that Byrne created in his band Talking Heads, and more recently, on the 2012 album 'Love this Giant', a fruitful collaboration with the musician St. Vincent, constantly poses questions--What is life, love, family, war, food, work?--dressed up in stop-and-start rhythms and stop-and-start intellection."  The same could be said for Kitson here.

Kitson layers the show with a self-operated sound machine to provide an almost constant ambient soundscape.  He also uses a Krapp’s Last Tape-like-loop of his own voice telling a story a friend told him about himself which he does not remember. He intermittently expands the story loop over the course of the show. The haunting moments of the story illustrate questions of memory and how people see each other as he incrementally increases the information given to the audience about the story.  In the expansive structure of the overall show, the recorded story is ballast to cling to. A touchstone moment to return to over and over again to get your bearings when your mind is racing to hold onto something solid.  Or is it?

The story loop adds weight and impact to the overall themes, but I found the ambient sound more problematic.  I usually enjoy the musicality of Kitson's writing and the rhythm of his delivery (which are all there), but in this instance I found myself straining to focus on the work against the added ambient sound.  He controlled the sound effects and they changed at times but not in ways that punctuated the thoughts or themes (or at least I could not identify a connection).  Perhaps it was this friction between voice and sound that he was going for--an uneven surface and aural discord, slippery and untrustworthy, to remind you that nothing is what you first think it is.  But it created for me an unwelcome distance from the words.

And what words. 

After all his overthinking, and his frustration with the difficulty in truly communicating with other people, Kitson seems to conclude there is one true connection—laughter. So perhaps making so many people laugh is a sign of a less than an empty life after all, Mr. Kitson. With the laughter I heard in Cambridge and Cardiff, I'd say, you've got a good thing going.

*Kitson requests that people stop trying to quote him as they get it painfully wrong knowing that mere mortals cannot possibly handle his linguistic density.  He also takes some pride in the fact that he is the victim of his own success on this front. Then, in contradictory fashion, he encourages people to disseminate his aphorism “If it’s snappy, it’s crappy,” with the phrase “spread it, with credit.”

**Paraphrasing Kitson again.  I swear that's his unit of measurement and not mine...but now my memory of the show has started to fade.  I don't think I made it up.

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