It’s that time of year again: SF Sketchfest 2017 is in town, and as always, brings with it the promise of some great talent and good times. It also marks yet another anniversary for me with Spinning Platters (my 6th), which also always makes me smile. Anyway, this year is no exception in terms of the fun shows I went to, the first being this past weekend, at PianoFight. Kirsten Vangsness may be best known to many of us as her character Penelope Garcia on CBS’ Criminal Minds (or, as Shemar Moore’s character Derek Morgan called her, simply “Baby Girl”). But even if this is the only thing you know her from, my guess is that you, like me, adore her for the quirky, sweet lady she plays on the show. Her original one-woman show MESS intrigued me: I learned that she wrote it based on ideas from a TED Talk (which, admittedly, I haven’t had time yet to watch). I wondered if she would be anything like Garcia, or something else entirely. I admit, I had no idea what to expect, but I couldn’t wait to find out.
The night began with the night’s charming host Kevin Yee introducing himself, looking dapper in a hot pink suit and bow tie. He warmed the crowd with a sweet song he’d written called “Gay Love” and quickly had the room in a roar (“you can’t get pregnant making gay love!”) This guy’s adorably silly dance moves and tongue-in-cheek lyrics (“I’ve tried and I’ve tried, oh, trust me – I’ve tried, but you can’t get pregnant making gay love!”) are perfectly on point. I can’t imagine how anyone could not like him. After the first song, Yee took a minute to talk to the crowd about the experience of coming out. Unfortunately, he said, he didn’t get to have the true milestone coming out that’s some kind of rite of passage of all homosexuals, given that his mom was completely accepting of his sexual orientation. His next topic of conversation was how fun it is to constantly be asked “what kind of Asian are you?!” after which he wrapped up the bit with a piece on hipsters and beards. He had one more song then, which he said was about being cheated on. The song (warning! NSFW!) was “I Fucked Your Dad,” and was another hilarious and dirty little ditty. You can check out the video if you liked to see for yourself.
Yee then introduced the first act, The Right Now. Normally, this act is a trio, but Fontana Butterfield was not present. Even so, Mariah Howard and Claire Slattery were more than enough to keep the crowd happy. I can only imagine that shows are exponentially funnier with a third lady to create improvisational havoc and fun. They took suggestions from the crowd about things that had happened recently that were “out of the ordinary,” and while smartly skirting the issue of the incoming President-elect altogether, still managed to work in having dinner with one’s boss, getting a “blowie” from the front desk manager, and a threesome. In fact, though unscripted, these girls worked together seamlessly, true masters in the games of Improv. Of particular interest to me personally was Howard’s brilliant linguistic talent: she began with a Southern dialect, and in a later sketch she spoke in a flawlessly lilting Russian accent. I admit, I had mixed emotions when they wrapped up their set: on one hand, I could have sat through another hour of their Improv, but on the other, I was ready to get a better look at Kirsten Vangsness’s self-proclaimed MESS.
After a brief introduction from Yee, the lovely blonde lady suddenly appeared in all her glory: in black fishnets with black boots, a black corset top and tutu-type skirt that were smeared and splattered with faded neon paint, streaks of black or red on her arms, hands, and neck. I suppose she adorned herself this way to make herself look more the self-proclaimed mess, but I still couldn’t help but admire her. When she began, it was incredibly hard to follow. I don’t want to get too into her narrative because I’d rather everyone go see it for themselves than try to wrap their heads around my regurgitated version, so I’ll do my best to explain without giving you a play-by-play (as I’ve been known to do). MESS is a kind of existential crisis. Whether experienced by a child of 3, or 5, or 9, or 14, or 42, or 68 is really quite hard to tell. How’s that, you ask? Because, as Vangsness explained fairly early on, we are all all of those ages at the same time, all of the time. If you don’t believe that, well, I’m not sure you’ll enjoy her show, but maybe you should try. Before getting too far into the explanation of all this, though, Vangsness taught the crowd a little song she wrote, that goes like this:
“‘Cos we all are a mess, I guess,
yes, we all are a mess…
and we try to cover our mess with stuff and
we act like we’re totally cool…”
And yes, at her insistence, we were singing it with her, and rather loudly at that. It helped that she had some visual aids, mostly large pieces of paper she’d scribbled on in big messy handwriting so it could be seen fairly well throughout the tiny venue. After crumpling up the paper with the words to her song, Vangsness showed the room another large paper that had a jagged timeline of sorts detailed on it. She hung it on the wall, explaining that she’d refer back to it as necessary, and not to worry if we couldn’t see it, because she’d point as she read from it later. Vangsness’ tales were twisty and somewhat confusing, as should be any descriptions of one’s challenges with personal demons: she described the first time she remembered meeting the “monsters,” one of whom was tiny (like a Mr. Peanut, but without the hat), and the other was very large, with brown-blue sticky fur and was “all face.” I find the concept of animated descriptions for one’s demons, whether “real,” imagined, or invented for the purposes of description, to be fascinating, and it was easy to visualize the monsters as Vangsness continually referred back to her interactions with them throughout her childhood, from 3 to 14 and at many points in between. She also described various moments of waking up from dreams, or thinking she was doing so only to realize that it was a dream-within-a-dream scenario, including once when she found herself meeting her father, “who was not kittens,” in the hallway of her home, clad in a white t-shirt tucked into his tighty whities. Henceforth she would refer to her father only as “Unkittens,” which sufficed to explain the difficulties of her complicated relationship with him.
In addition to childhood dreams and nightmares alike, Vangsness’ tales told of summers when separated parents attempted to reconcile, to her apparent displeasure, and of moments where the “air was backwards,” and so she had to breathe backwards, thus forcing her out of the house and up into a nearby tree so she could get more air. She told of a naughty adventure creating a warm cozy dirty little compound for forty thousand frog babies in a plastic garbage can of water that was supposed to have remained sealed for emergencies. Much of the stories, though, centered around Vangsness’ adventures at her friend Jodi’s church camp when she was 14. This part of the show included a brief but wonderful little moment of Vangsness lipsyncing to Amy Grant’s “Angels,” (a song I hadn’t heard since my own religious adolescence). It was surreal to hear it, because while it was used perfectly punctuate the brief moments of Vangsness’ exploration with a higher power, it also immediately transported me to similar moments of my own youth, which perhaps was her intent.
She went on to describe aspects of camp life, including Sports and Rec time, during which campers basically did “things Jesus would do,” like playing kickball and “finger-banging girls down by the creek.” Also retold was the experience one night when some of the boys decided to lip-sync to a Christian punk band. Vangsness’ joyful dancing to the sounds, however, led to a moment where “Brother Steve” called all the “sexy teens” back from heading toward their cabins for the night, declaring “Satan was here tonight!” In the end, it all seemed to implode in on fourteen-year-old Vangsness who described how she “cracked” that night “in the dark dark” with her monsters. Ultimately, the camp tales brought Vangsness’ monster stories full circle, to where she was able to eventually understand greater the breadth and width and depth of time, and how we’re all “all these ages at the same time, all the time.” This was where Vangsness began to conclude her show, bringing it all full circle to where she’d started. Her ending, in a same vein, was abrupt, but appropriate: she said, “this is going to look like the end,” and then the room went black.
Overall, while I found the show at times a bit confusing, I thought MESS was brilliant, and brave, and beautiful. Now that I’ve seen it in its entirety, I would be able to understand it better the whole way through – kind of like when you watch The Sixth Sense the first time, and then you watch it again and it all makes so much more sense the second time. I thought Vangsness was incredibly gutsy to put such personal details – however small they may or may not be to her, on display for anyone with a ticket to see. I mean this as an accolade, in case it isn’t clear, though: it’s certainly not something I think I (or, in fact, most of us) could easily do, and she does it with finesse, and with the ability to draw you in, even when you don’t fully understand all of what you’re seeing at the time. And, bonus: there’s a theme song! I would definitely see Kirsten Vangsness again, in this or any other show, and in the meantime, I have this to say: thank you, Ms. Vangsness, and naMESSte. (The mess in me salutes the mess in you.)