Two's a crowd?

Comical and existential, The Companion Piece explores life and love as a vaudeville act

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Double trouble: Christopher Kuckenbaker and Beth Wilmurt are responsible for most of the high jinx in The Companion Piece
PHOTO BY PAK HAN

The Companion Piece is a charmingly inventive new work of devised theater conceived by actor Beth Wilmurt and directed by Mark Jackson for Z Space. It unfolds as a series of arch "meta" vaudevillian routines by a frustrated long-time duo (played with uncommon chemistry and comedic finesse by Wilmurt and Christopher Kuckenbaker).

Companion is less a narrative-driven tale than a clever, frequently hilarious, and gently moving set of variations on certain themes. These include the need for companionship, the nature of artistic creation, and the fragile balance between egos desperate to assert themselves yet just as desperately bound to the support and sympathy of others. Wilmurt's initial inspiration for the show was a scientific treatise on the nature of human connection, the 2000 bestseller A General Theory of Love, by psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. It's appropriate that this world premiere runs to the very cusp of dreaded Valentine's Day.

As often as not, Companion's themes develop through telling contrasts. The central one juxtaposes the two needy, half-bumbling performers — as they set about trying to forge their second-string act — with the deft, supremely self-confident solo headliner (played with a flawless, period-flavored, almost animatronic showbiz intensity by Jake Rodriguez). The headliner lives with a manic force exclusively for the few minutes he's onstage — in a bizarre and well-honed routine delivered at the outset of the play and again at the end — shutting down into an enervated, shell-shocked state in between. The duo, whose high jinx account for the bulk of what we see, meanwhile remains most alive in the give-and-take of their zany, agonized creative process. That process may be forever incomplete, but it produces one captivating scene after another, often with the simplest of means: a sly sock-and-shoe puppet show inside a giant trunk is just one of many winning moments.

All this takes place on a cavernous, shadow-filled stage (courtesy of scenic designer Nina Ball), largely bare but for a grab bag of props — trampolines, musical instruments, toilet plungers, rubber chickens, and the like — and a large olio drop featuring a magnificent vintage-style portrait of the headliner, "the sensation of the stage." There are also a set of doors in the far wall at the back of the stage, one conspicuously set about 10 feet off the ground, sort of Winchester Mystery House style, with a gold star painted on it. This door, it turns out, is accessible by one of two rolling metal staircases, which both become the inspiration for a gorgeously solemn, oddball waltz between the couple. The deceptively spare environment comes filled with other small surprises, as when Wilmurt's character swings out from the wing on an industrial crane that slowly glides over the front rows of the audience.

There's an eerie beauty to this theatrical undress, and the capacious sense of possibility mingling there in the shuffle and tussle of the performers. As they tirelessly ply their shtick and clamber for turf in the enveloping darkness (moodily broken up by Gabe Maxson's lighting and poignantly underscored by Rodriguez's evocative sound design), it comes to seem like their environment is no less than the muffling expanse of time and space itself.

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