Power of love expressed through long-forgotten genre

Showing that you’re in love with someone doesn’t usually involve a sailor’s costume with a hula hoop or a coordinated magic act on trampolines, but a new San Francisco performance piece may change all that.

Z Space Theatre Company, in conjunction with local director Mark Jackson and actor-singer Beth Wilmurt, has created “The Companion Piece,” an alternative mixture of modern theater and the long-forgotten vaudeville genre playing at the Z Space theater at 450 Florida St. through Feb. 13.

“There’s such a variety of things going on in the piece,” Jackson said. “There’s music, there’s dance, there’s movement, there’s scenes, there’s vaudeville.”

Vaudeville was a form of theater popular in the early 20th century that incorporated everything from comedians, magicians and singers into a single performance.

“The Companion Piece” is about a pair of failing performers, Wilmurt and actor Christopher Kuckenbaker, who struggle to deal not only with developing a functioning vaudeville act, but also with interpersonal conflicts.

Their failure to develop a cohesive act is contrasted by veteran vaudeville star Jake Rodriguez, who has his act down pat and performs confidently.

While not a true vaudeville show, Jackson said the genre is used as a basis for characters and the piece as a whole.

“I still enjoy watching it even after I’ve been working on it for so long,” Jackson said. “I just went to go see it last night and it surprises even me because it doesn’t unfold in a traditional way, so it has a lot of unexpected turns to it and the characters and the themes come at you in a way that’s unexpected.”

Wilmurt was originally inspired by the book, “A General Theory of Love,” which takes a scientific look at the process of love and its affect on biology.

“One of the subjects of the book was how our bodies need other bodies in order to survive,” Jackson said. “Our heartbeat is regulated by other heartbeats around us. This mystical thing we love, that we think about, is actually also a biological necessity.”

As a result, “The Companion Piece,” while attempting to be a comedic experience, delivers some points about what it means to need another person rather than being alone.

Watching vaudeville documentaries in Berlin, Wilmurt and Jackson felt that the genre and its performers were a great fit for what it meant to rely on something to survive, such as depending on paying gigs.

“It acknowledges the great struggle we all seem to have in life dealing with the extent to which we need other people,” Wilmurt said. “Themes of desire for credit and recognition, loneliness, feeling stifled, et cetera, are all a part of that endless struggle.”

The script for “The Companion Piece” was not worked out in advance by a playwright; instead, Wilmurt, Jackson and a team of others worked to create a script through improvisation and collaborative efforts.

Since graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in directing from SF State, Jackson has remained an influence on campus, serving as a freelance professor of viewpoints, biomechanics and directing since 2006. He was also a guest director in the 2010 SF State performance,¬†“Juliet”.

Costume and set designer Nina Ball and all three actors in the show are also SF State alumni.

After the show, some audience members were bursting with joy over the piece.

“I really liked the design elements, I felt they added to the work,” said audience member Andrew Packard. “The idea was definitely out of the box.”

“The Companion Piece” makes attempts at both comedy and poignancy in regard to relationships, yet in the end it makes some conscious choices to leave certain points unfinished.

“Something needed to be missing,” Jackson said. “In life, things don’t always end as neatly as they do in fiction and we wanted to someway reflect this in the piece so that it was a truer piece about being in a relationship.”

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