English cult comedian Daniel Kitson’s shows are a one-way communion. He expresses the riveting mundane intricacies of his life through virtuosic torrents of profanity and shimmering insights, but all we know about him is what he tells us on stage. His labyrinthine stories begin with a brochure-ready premise but soon morph into something else.
In Keep., now running at Studio Theatre, that something else is the two-hour accretion of a strange, thorny beauty unlike anything you could imagine existing, in this world, without first seeing this writer-performer’s art for yourself.
“That’s just how it comes out,” Kitson says of his blistering, bliss-inducing gifts during his second solo play to appear in D.C.
Here’s the premise of Keep.:The austere set comprises a chair, a small square table, and a large, tall cabinet in back with 50 long drawers, rather like a library card catalog, with a lamp on top of the cabinet. The drawers contain varying lengths of pastel-colored index cards. Kitson, foul-mouthed with jittery tics and a stammer, claims that, on every index card, he has painstakingly named one of the 20,000 objects in his house. He claims that this play will consist of his reading aloud from each index card to list the entire contents of the house.
Then the play changes shape, a metaphor, to me, for how we experience our existence unpredictably unfolding, from the mass-produced hope of baby blankets and dorm room posters to the sad specific majesty of a lucky adult life. Metaphors abound in Keep. The things in his house are the things in his head, and the things he keeps have meaning.
To say here literally what happens next would spoil the story, though his meticulously constructed stories are not, to me, why a Kitson show matters. You go to see the singularity of his sensibility in person.
He tells the audience that Keep. took him six and a half months to write.
“I feel lonely because—anyone? I’m alive.” He says there are different types of loneliness: the type that a spot of tea and a chat will help and existential isolation. He advises that “you can fall in love with essentially anyone” if two conditions are met: They’re not a jerk, and regular low-stakes proximity. “Sadness is important,” he says. It’s like “salt in the soup. You miss it when it’s not there.”
Before the show, while I was sitting near the box office, Kitson walked by, a complexly perceptive and self-aware glint in his eye. Somewhere well into Keep.’s two hours, he paused and looked up. Across the nearly black air, I mysteriously felt his glint reach my eyes, but I assumed it was an accident of live theater, and impossible at that. A few beats later, he said in an offhandedly dehumanizing way: “There’s press here. If you’re reviewing: Don’t.”
This was, of course, part of his media-shy legend. I wouldn’t even mention this, as I don’t wish to take the bait by amplifying his throwaway moment of crowd work. But he also pointed out an audience member’s hearing aid, so that she had to interact about it, and repeated his perspective that women in his bedroom should “pop your clothes off, then.” His art very occasionally punches down.
Maybe I’m not achieving what I hoped for in this review. I set out mainly to explain why one goes to a Daniel Kitson show. I haven’t even mentioned the section of Keep. where he speaks at a meta level about making his art.
“It’s impossible for me to tell you the truth,” he says. Then he explains that a slice of pizza is 100 percent pizza—but a slice of pizza is not 100 percent of the pizza. As his audience puzzles out that you can never really know all of anyone, I see him smile.
To Dec. 1 at 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$25. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.
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