Kate the Great

By Rebecca GiordanoFebruary 3, 2024

Kate the Great
KATE, Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena, January 17–February 11, 2024.

Kate is for everyone. Comedian Kate Berlant’s one-woman show is a rousing send-up of contemporary theater that has united industry insiders, millennial fans, and Pasadena Playhouse’s aging subscribers who doze through a play every other month. We all laughed, snorted, and cheered. Despite Berlant’s frequently ironic tone and bits about media’s traffic in authenticity, at heart, it’s savvy and, dare I say, sincere.

Though directed by comedian Bo Burnham and scripted by Berlant, the structure of Kate is little more than a typical stand-up set of hers. A single woman plays a cast of unnamed characters, aided by a few props and a projector—the latter used to great effect when the character Kate faces her chief obstacle, acting on camera. Some characters are shades apart from Berlant herself. Others are caricatures, like the ghost of a New York street urchin who sweeps the Pasadena Playhouse and reminds the audience of the theater’s “magic.” There’s not so much a plot as a barrage of narrative conceits and theatrical tropes, playthings for Berlant to pick up, stretch, and throw down (literally, in the case of a glass thrown onstage). Don’t worry, though: everything pays off.

The immersion into Kate’s world and themes begins before you even enter the theatre. The Playhouse staff wears Kate merch; in the lobby, a spotlight shines on a white stool in front of a star. Berlant strikes poses of exaggerated emotion, clad in a trim black tank, high-waisted wide-leg jeans, and heeled boots (Labucq, according to the full-page ad in the performance notes: $560). On the wall next to the hand sanitizer, a purposely overwrought artist statement explains “the questions that guided” her “process”: “Where do our stories come from? Do we create ourselves in spite of ourselves? Or are we created despite ourselves to spite ourselves?”

It’s our first taste of Kate’s central character, an indulgent, shallow actress from Los Angeles using the prestige of “theater” to advance her career. She’s banking on “Steve from Disney+” attending. On one level, Kate satirizes the trend of solo performance as trauma revelation: “A story that must be told!” The question “WHO ARE YOU, KATE?” fills the screen. But this is a red herring. What Kate really asks is: “Why are you sitting in a theater and watching me?”

Known for her experimental stand-up, Berlant builds some of her hallmark improv crowd work into the performance. Solo improvising injects a wild card tone and demonstrates how much the performer trusts her instincts. She doesn’t seem to know what she’s about to say until it’s already out of her mouth. The secret to acting is putting feelings “in the air,” a tip a boozy jazz bar patron gives Kate to help her cry on cue, the driving concern of the show’s second half. 

“Your big, crass style of indication has no place in front of the camera!” A hiss from Kate’s villainous mother becomes a refrain. It inhibits her from crying on cue, for Kate the mark of a real actor. As many have noted, Berlant plays HUGE. She’s my generation’s Lily Tomlin. And Kate lets her go big. Though I loved being in an audience cheering and hooting for a woman shedding a single tear, the show’s resolution wasn’t my catharsis. I reveled in seeing a woman create and play out a scenario that allowed her full minutes to pull her face at movie-screen scale, like a goofy Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. As a woman who has been accused of being “too much,” there is pure pleasure for me in seeing another big woman go bigger.


Photo by contributor.

LARB Short Take live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

Rebecca Giordano is an art historian based in Los Angeles.


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