Review: ‘KATE’ is an immersive theatrical experience like nothing you’ve seen before

Kate Berlant stamped her name onto an annoyingly entertaining alt-comedy show that revives live theater.

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“KATE,” the one-woman showing starring Kate Berlant, is a must-see theater experience.(Photo by Emilio Madrid)

Alexandra Cohen, Opinion Editor

You don’t already have to love Kate Berlant to love “KATE.” But we have a kinship — we both followed the all-girls school in Los Angeles to NYU pipeline — a common trend for girls who got a bit too much love and attention from their parents and had a desire to escape the laid-back small town of Los Angeles for the East Coast, big city intellectualism that New York City provides. 

I love Kate and therefore I love “KATE.” The sold-out one-woman show written by and starring Berlant and directed by Bo Burnham is the best thing I have ever seen.

At NYU, she studied “the cultural anthropology of comedy” at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and received her master’s degree in performance studies at the Tisch School of the Arts. Her one-woman show displays many things, but most importantly that a Gallatin concentration can be applied in the real world. “KATE” demonstrates the cultural nature of comedy, theater, performance and emotion by taking the audience through a journey of her life, joke after joke — each about her, but universally relatable. 

Berlant is credited with inventing the art of today’s alt-comedy with fellow NYU alum John Early. The two have brought the subgenre into the mainstream with great success — performances in “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” a Peacock special and apparent influence on every up-and-coming comedian in the Brooklyn alt-comedy scene today whose acts echo Berlant’s wry humor and minimalist aesthetic presentation. 

The show begins and ends with the same self-aware, third-wall breaking sentiment: theater is a magical thing. From the moment you walk in, you are confronted with a lobby lined with decals of Berlant plastered on every wall and enter the theater through a replica of her childhood living room. There are elements of her everywhere you look. The show makes the self-obsessed imagery genius rather than obnoxious. “KATE” is what “Victorious” Trina Vega hoped to do in her one-woman rendition of “Chicago” if she was talented and in on her own joke. 

Berlant is quirky and different from the straight male comedians that dominate mainstream comedy. She’s theatrical, thoughtful, funny without offending anyone but herself — and she can take a joke. Her humor is a niche taste, but a good one. 

The show incorporates film and live performance both on-stage and within the story itself. It starts with a screen telling you that “KATE” will begin in five minutes and begs you to introduce yourself to the person sitting beside you. I went to this show alone, but soon became part of a community with my fellow theater-goers.

In the five minutes before the show started, there were already more laughs than most comedians will get by the end of a five-minute set. The screen cuts to a clip of Berlant in “A League of Their Own” (2022), and tells the audience that it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime. The irony of one woman advertising her prerecorded one-woman show at her live one-woman show earned many deserved laughs. The screen then scrolled through her IMDb, doubling down on the joke, while also pointing to her current career high. Berlant’s limited New York run wasn’t the only event of hers to sell out — her Los Angeles workshops sold out, too.

Berlant is the modern inventor of a drama form — a comedy so odd, smart and self-aware it can only be described as alternative. A screen stands behind her the entire show, the second lady of “KATE.” There, she teases the show with a slideshow featuring many of the greats who came before her, like Adler, Meisner and Strasberg, all of which have Tisch Drama studios named after them. I hope one day my child will attend Tisch Drama and proudly say Berlant when other Drama kids ask which studio they’re in. Berlant knows she’s great and that’s what makes “KATE” great.

Finally, when the titular Berlant appears on stage, the audience roars. They know how lucky they are to be experiencing “KATE” and experiencing her. She comes on stage as Larry, the man who sweeps the stage at the Connelly each night. Larry talks about how even as a simple man, he and “Ms. Berlant” share a love of the theatre. 

When she finally enters the stage as herself, Berlant sheds the Larry costume and lets her iconic curls flow free. Her outfit is simple: a cropped black tank top, black jeans, a belt and black boots. Against a white screen, she assumes a monochromatic contrast. Her stand-up special is filmed in black and white, too. Berlant is an idiosyncratic genius, beyond the bright colors of the comedians we see today. She doesn’t need Sarah Sherman’s grotesque costumes and body-horror that make you squirm, or Chloe Fineman’s wacky impressions — her sparkle shines through the black and white.

The third lady of the show is a camera that sits on stage left. It records her dramatic facial expressions and projects them in black and white on the massive screen behind her. The conflict of this act is that she can’t cry on command on camera, an action that’s made more dramatic by how her famously expressive face is blown-up for the whole audience to see. So, she avoids being on camera like the plague as she relives her move to New York at 18 and her trials and tribulations in acting that follow.

“KATE” does what nobody dares to do today, highlight something deemed typically unimportant and small throughout an entire work while not aggrandizing it; that is, crying on camera. If you’d like to know whether or not she sheds a tear, you’ll have to go see “KATE.”

In her one-woman show, Berlant proves one thing — she’s a force when it comes to immersive theater. I went into the show as a Kate superfan, and I left as a “KATE” superfan. People who don’t know and love Berlant must live under a rock, but will without a doubt leave this show in awe of her. It’s a hard ticket to get, but it’s a worthwhile one.

Contact Alexandra Cohen at [email protected]