Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Companion Piece

(Chris Kuckenbaker and Beth Wilmurt. Photo by Pak Han.)

When I walk out of a show feeling frustrated, I try to think that I’m supposed to react that way. “The creators were trying to challenge me,” I say to myself, “to upend my assumptions about how theater’s supposed to work. And the frustration I’m feeling is my inability to understand what I just saw. I don’t have an analytical framework with which to process it.”

But sometimes, the show is just a bad show. Challenge and frustration, after all, need not go hand in hand.

The Companion Piece, which I saw this evening at Z Space, was not a bad show by any means. Beth Wilmurt (who “conceived” the piece) and Chris Kuckenbaker, as a vaudeville duo in the midst of fashioning their act, paint a poignant, humorous and honest picture of the creative process: the way minds in collaboration sometimes need no words to communicate; just how much a performer desperately wants, and needs, an audience; the deeply personal disappointment that comes when artistic visions conflict; how delirious we can seem when trying to persuade our collaborators that, no, really, this idea will look fabulous if you just listen to what I’m saying.

And Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker, under the direction of famed Bay Area experimentalist Mark Jackson, do create some lovely images: utility ladders gliding on the floor like a pair of figure skaters; the actors’ feet illustrating a saloon encounter with the magic and subtlety of a professional puppet show.

But images in The Companion Piece are fleeting; it’s never long before one member of the duo grows dissatisfied with a scene and has to interrupt the whole thing with a different idea, or, worse, a discussion. Art, for everything it offers us, seems too fraught and futile by the performance’s end to be worth it. Maybe that’s where my frustration came from: I fundamentally disagree with that premise.

When bookended by Jake Rodriguez’s solo act—which, bizarrely, is performed in exactly the same way, in lines, expressions, gestures and audience interaction, both times—Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker’s piece loses much of its magic, its immediacy and urgency. Acts of theater, the performers suggest, are repetition, products to churn out on a factory assembly line.

It’s true that actors have to perform the same thing over and over again—vaudevillians even more so than others. And the few minutes I spent sitting through a replica of shtick I’d just seen might not have taken that much time out of my life: Maybe it was worth it to help me empathize with the actor’s plight.

But in almost any other show, five minutes of boredom and confusion would be five minutes too many. I’m not sure The Companion Piece deserves special treatment just because I was supposed to be “thinking” during theirs.

The Companion Piece continues (Thursday - Sunday, various times) through February 13 at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco. For tickets ($20 - $40), visit

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