The Companion Piece or “I glove you whore”

Jan 23

The Companion Piece

Jake Rodriguez shows off his vaudevillian chops in The Companion Piece, a world premiere at Z Space @ Theatre Artaud. Below: Christopher Kuckenbaker and Beth Wilmurt are two of a kind, a pair of fools. Photos by Pak Han.

 

You could throw a lot of adjectives at The Companion Piece, a world-premiere creation by director Mark Jackson, actor Beth Wilmurt and their crew: wily, zany, exciting, perplexing, silly and utterly beautiful. You could throw a lot of words, but they don’t quite create the picture of just what the Companion experience is.

To begin with, this Encore Theatre Company/Z Space world premiere is all about entertainment – the old-fashioned, shtick-’em-up vaudeville kind of entertainment. Pratfalls, hoary jokes and razzmatazz. The 80-minute show is bookended by a pasty-faced vaudevillian with spit curls and routine that sputters like a rickety but reliable old car. He does magic. He sings. He says things like, “Do you have a mirror in your pocket? I can see myself in your pants.” And then he’s done and trundles up to his dressing room alone.

Then we get two modern-day performers trying to work in the vaudevillian tradition, but first they have to converse with the audience and get some feedback before they launch into the serious business of creating their comedy act.

And then the penny drops. This isn’t about entertainment at all (as entertaining as it is). It’s about relationships. You can go it alone like Jake Rodriguez as the ye olde time vaudevillian and turn into a misanthropic robot who sings barbed songs with lines like, “I’ve never needed someone less than I’ve never needed you.”

Or you could go through the world with a companion – someone to upstage you, mess with your props, critique your dramatic monologues and dance the dance of compromise.

The Companion Piece

That’s quite a choice. As director Jackson puts it in his program note, it’s the Hell of Other People vs. the Hell of Isolation. The Companion Piece doesn’t exactly make a case for either, though it seems that Wilmurt and Christopher Kuckenbaker are having a lot more fun. They fight and they duel with egos instead of sabers. But they also dance an exquisite pas de deux with giant rolling staircases. And they put on a charming puppet show with only their feet visible.

The genesis of this show apparently came from the book A General Theory of Love by a trio of San Francisco psychiatrists who ponder the scientific need for human companionship — a notion that we actually need to be around other human beings to survive. The concept for the show is Wilmurt’s, but the piece was developed without a script as Jackson, his actors and designers all found their way into the world of solos, duos and the dances they dance.

The result is astonishingly coherent, with moments of genuine comedy – as when Kuckenbaker mishears a cue and says “I glove you whore” – and real lyrical beauty as when Wilmurt, on a swing hovering over the audience, cracks the psyche of performers in a simple, eloquent, heartbreaking way. There are a couple drowsy moments here and there, but mostly the giant Theatre Artaud space is filled with a spirit of adventures in entertainment that actually means something.

Nina Ball’s set is filled with surprises, as are her wonderfully comic costumes (the striped union suit is especially fetching). The big, open space of the stage gives a show about intimacy (or avoiding it) an epic feel. We also get moments of theatrical flair, as when Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker create their own miniature proscenium stage for a magic act that turns into a battle of wills (I’m the magician and you’re the assistant. No, I’m the magician and YOU’RE the assistant). Gabe Maxon’s lighting design go a long way toward giving shape and theatrical flair to such a large performance space.

Rodriguez gives a startling performance in his brief but memorable time on stage, but his real magic is in the sound design, which features ’30s jazz, a scratchy recording of “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and all kinds of riffs on traditional rim shots and fanfares. There’s also live music – Wilmurt does some singing, which is always a good thing. The song “If I Loved You” features prominently, as it should.

The Companion Piece, directed with Jackson’s signature precision and inventiveness, is a disarmingly delightful show to watch, but it’s even more interesting to think about afterward. Now how often can you say that about something this entertaining? Go with someone you love. Or go alone.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The Companion Piece continues through Feb. 13 at Z Space @ Theatre Artaud, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$40. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.zspace.org.

One comment

  1. and the choreographed staircases . . . mesmerizing! The Jackson/Wilmurt combo (along with their associates old and new) continues to amaze. And entertain. And pay rapt attention.

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