Cheerful Insanity: Chao and Katzberg in Repertory

Tom X. Chao: Callous Cad
Kim Katzberg: Penetrating the Space
145 Sixth Avenue
September 26 – October 16, 2011

Cheerful Insanity consists of two plays, both directed by John Harlacher and presented in repertory at the downtown performance space called Here. I attended these plays knowing next to nothing about what I was to behold in the downstairs performance space. I am not quite sure of the “cheerful,” but there was “insanity” galore.

In Callous Cad, Tom X. Chao plays himself: a man who finally, after years and years of failure, has had “sex” and is now saddled in a relationship with a woman he does not love -- or even, it seems, like very much. He reminds me of early Woody Allen in acting roles, when you were not expected take his acting seriously. The difference here is that Tom is a charmless neurotic showing none of the delight Allen exuded in being neurotic. As writer of the play, Mr. Chao has crafted witty and droll words for himself and his unexpected companion of the evening, a Magical Being portrayed by the abundantly talented Charlotte Pines. Ms. Pines is helped out by her ever-scurrying Magical Assistant, played by Amy Virginia Buchanan.

In the course of the play, just about every permutation of advice and woe-is-me rumination is covered by Tom, Magical Being, and Tom’s “Friends,” who offer advice in video segments. One video advisor is a pedantic gentleman who recites a numbered list, Dale Carnegie style, of what to do when you are in an empty relationship -- each item more pointless than the preceding. There certainly is hilarity to be experienced, but did I care about Tom’s plight? No. Tom’s character reminded me of Jack Lemmon in the movie version of the Broadway play Luv. As portrayed by Lemmon, the character Harry Berlin was an unredeemable uber-schlemiel. Tom does not require advice from friends or even a Magical Being. Tom is not really a callous cad. He merely needs to enroll in remedial charm school.

The treat of the evening was watching Charlotte Pines as the Magical Being. Ms. Pines is a performer in the tradition of Imogene Coco: a consummate comedienne and a gifted singer and dancer. In addition, Ms. Pines’s sense of whimsy and theatrical lunacy called to mind the best work of June Foray, who is best remembered for her work with Stan Freberg and the many voices she provided in Rocky and Bullwinkle. She also reminded me of the unique Black Eyed Susan (Susan Carlson) in her numerous hilarious roles over many years with The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, in plays such as Reverse Psychology and Secret Lives of the Sexists. Alas, it would seem that today there are few outlets left to fully utilize Ms. Pines’s considerable talents. I hope she is discovered by some discerning producers and hits the big time.

Kim Katzberg’s one-woman Penetrating the Space is what my mother would have called “an experience!” Jinny Jikkl, as portrayed by Ms. Katzberg, is a fascinating mess. I have met the Jinny Jikkls of the world: the mediocre (and below) talents who suffer from histrionic personality disorder and consider their grandiose projects to be of monumental and overarching importance. Jinny approaches the preparation of her autobiographical one-woman show with the haughty arrogance of a supreme, albeit neglected, diva. The substance of her intended show is appalling and often vulgar to the max. Jinny explains how she has engaged an aroma specialist to create an essence of the scent of her vagina to be piped though the ventilation system to “penetrate the space” of her performance. Jinny is pathetic, but there is still a human there.

Ms. Katzberg plays not only Jinny but also various other characters to the hilt, and even beyond. The first character to appear on stage is Terry, a burned-out stripper who punctuates her languid prattle by answering a suicide hotline with a relentlessly blank, disinterested, and self-absorbed tone (to hilarious effect). Jinny, as herself, is introduced in a video as she makes her way from the street and down through the corridors to the actual theater space in which the play takes place. When she appeared on stage, I wondered if this really was a one-person show; the actor playing Jinny could not have been the one playing Terry! It took a moment of disbelief until I realized this was indeed a one-woman show: Ms. Katzberg has an uncanny ability to totally transform herself into her various characters.

Jinny wants “industry” to see her show. Industry? What industry? Sideshow proprietors? Jinny loses a Gas-X commercial and explains in the most spiteful and graphic manner how the winner of the commercial got the job by chicanery: she charmed the producer by washing his privates in Evian Water! Jinny details each step of the process with hilariously venomous protestations. Later we see the video Jinny has prepared to showcase her Gas-X skills. It is extremely funny, but how could anyone think this effort could win her a commercial? Jinny is not “just” anyone apparently -- but decidedly so. Excellent animated video by Maia Cruz Palileo compounds the lunacy and ultimate sadness of being Jinny. My goodness, what displaced energy, what supreme oblivious wrong-headedness! Each subsequent character that appears -- daddy’s molested child, the wolf girl, and the butch lighting technician -- serves to magnify Jinny as the delusional, yet some how human, speeding train wreck she is. Jinny orchestrates a visit to the man who rented her the performance space. She thinks he is hot for her. She arrives with a horse prop and all, to impress him. Is he impressed? Oh, poor Jinny.

Ms. Katzberg has written and performed a compelling, hilarious, and even hypnotic evening of theater. What could Jinny do next, you ask, to show us how absolutely unconscious she is to herself? Penetrating the Space is like a page-turner you can not put down: shocking, appalling, vulgar, uproarious -- and a bit sad. - Jay Reisberg

 Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, assistant to the founder of New York's Love Street Theatre, and bon vivant at large.

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