How to Make Love With the Lights On

Lisa Kotin

at the Royal George Theatre Center Gallery, through October 26

In her new one-woman show Lisa Kotin has moved on from the much-maligned office temp of Temporary Girl and The Office Christmas Party to a wacky portrait of a mime with an eating disorder and a history of bad relationships. And Kotin’s mugging, her satirical exaggeration, and the human-size Hershey’s bars she’s devised make this grim story, kind of a “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Geek,” surprisingly funny.

How to Make Love With the Lights On succeeds partly because of its 16- millimeter films, black-and-white and nostalgically choppy, which transform a potential melodrama of female dysfunction into an entertaining circus. In this age of easily manipulable video and computer images, which put performance on the same frequency as TV, celluloid seems both playful and “real,” evoking home movies and documentaries. Kotin’s films, with their raw edge, draw the audience into the urban and suburban byways traveled by her alter ego Laurel Cone.

We drive with her through tree-lined streets in the backseat of the family car, en route to the mime classes her mother hopes will make Laurel famous. We follow Laurel’s repetitive, goofily pitiful attempts to attract a man using standard mime tricks: the “wall,” “walking a dog,” “climbing the stairs.” We track Laurel’s sugar rush through the streets of New York City, a binge that begins with a sharply witty clownish drama: as focused and desperate as an assassin, Laurel grabs the dessert two lovers have been feeding each other, making her sublimation blatant and satirical. My favorite shtick, though it lasted far too long, was the film detailing the men Laurel had loved–all of them portrayed by human Hershey’s bars, alluringly unwrapped, moving casually through public spaces, tiny arms protruding from their sides.

Kotin also manages some inspired vignettes, particularly Laurel’s fantasy of becoming a supermodel. As she writhes and postures through this interior monologue, detailing her hunger, self-hatred, and fear of fat, an unseen photographer comments unctuously in voice-over: “Love that bruised and battered look! This girl knows every look that’s hot!” In her most cutting monologue Kotin dissects her alter ego’s fear of desserts; it culminates in a desperate cry to be normal–to simply say without guilt, “Yes, I would like to have dessert.”

Less successful are Kotin’s satires of the psychologists and alternative therapists paid huge fees by Laurel’s parents. Therapists often deserve to be lampooned, particularly those who promise a quick fix. But these self-absorbed, greedy, and sketchily portrayed healers are one-joke cartoons. So is Laurel’s ultimate success as a videographer, when she appears on a talk show to hawk her How to Make Love With the Lights On. A contortionist video designed to help women who are ashamed of their bodies show off their “best” qualities, Laurel’s money-making project repeats and intensifies the self-abasement mocked throughout the evening–it’s the climax of the character’s desperation. Although Kotin’s project is clearly feminist and often clever, our last view of Laurel is too ugly to be funny and too broadly drawn to be effective as satire.

It’s as if the young mime has somehow exploded into a cultural icon yet still lacks the skill to perform her new role with finesse or any consciousness that her video debases women. This absence of perspective is also built into the imprecise frenzy of Kotin’s physical style. What made Buster Keaton so extraordinary was his ability to physicalize characters whose lives were filled with discomfort without denying them grace, however temporary. Laurel’s tension is continual and self-conscious, giving her–and the audience–no moment of hope that respite or healing will come. If Kotin’s character is a send-up of a certain kind of desperate, middle-class heterosexual female, How to Make Love With the Lights On is only a partial comic exorcism, leaving us awkwardly suspended between despair and laughter, alienation and identification, with nowhere to go but the nearest all-you-can-eat restaurant.