“Losing your mind, which is what happened, is a terrible thing. But once it’s gone, it’s fine. It’s completely fine because there’s no part of you left that knows the rest of it is missing.”
– Carrie Fisher, interviewed by Diane Sawyer on 20/20 (2000)
I don’t have issues. Really.
I mean, sure I’m currently acting in a show that had to go through a desperate casting scramble when lead actress Jan Gilbert dropped out to direct this show for KML, but it’s not as if I swore vengeance on each and every KML member, collected info on them via my contacts at the NSA, and used said info to compile the sort of incriminating files that would put J. Edgar Hoover to shame.
That would be silly.
I kid, but as someone who was forced into therapy at a young age because of something someone else did, I’m well aware of the stigma around seeking help for mental health. I’m all-too-familiar with the feeling of being gaslit by a parent who doesn’t like the look on your face and insists that someone “fix” you like a broken clock (only for you to later realise you were never broken). And I know that mental health assistance – like all things in the oh-so-wonderful shitstorm that is US healthcare – is being pushed farther and farther out of the reach of those who need it most. What’s one to do?
Laugh, of course. Hell, this show’s opening number touts that very advice to the tune of the Singin’ in the Rain number. It makes sense that KML’s satirical take on the-industry-hated-by-Scientology is the same length (one hour) as the average therapy session. But instead of deflecting questions from a first-year psych intern as you wait out the minutes on your court-appointed 28-day stint, the troupe – led by Gilbert and head writer Molly “Fuckin’” Sanchez – have opted to tickle the funny-bone of everyone who wasn’t the grumpy old woman sitting next to me. (Seriously, I saw the show sitting next a woman in her 40s or 50s who flat out refused to laugh at anything on stage. What’s more, she kept shooting me dirty looks whenever I – and the rest of the audience – sang along with the music during the pre-show and transitions.)
This is, hands down, one of best KML shows I’ve ever seen. It treats its topic with the sensitivity that comes from first-hand experience whilst taking a sharp blade to its most frustrating elements – all in the most hilarious ways possible. There are two pieces that deal with the awkward experience of running into one’s therapist in public – at a strip club, no less – one in which a patient demands his therapist give him a timetable for when he’ll be “cured”, and several that skewer the snake-oil solutions of over-the-counter products.
Throughout it all, the recurring theme is facing up to the most difficult part of therapy: talking about it. These are the sketches that, upon reflection, may tug at your heart-strings as much as they split your sides. Despite the increased visibility of those with mental illness (including that wonderful departed woman whose quote I use up top), we still live in a society that considers seeking out help a form of weakness and an admission of failure. This attitude continues to do more harm to those who could probably get easy answers, and KML’s sketches address this with a Black father refusing to let his (unseen) kid get help, a silent film-type sketch that literally makes it difficult to talk, and – in one of the evening’s best pieces – a Midwestern girl broaching the topic of therapy with her bearded, working-class dad.
Even at its (for lack of a better term) “weakest”, Gilbert, Sanchez, & crew still pull chuckles out of the broad absurdity of the situation. For instance, a one-joke piece like a patient thinking they’re Abraham Lincoln or one in which a patient is sexually aroused by the Green M&M won’t have the depth of one in which a Scottish blacksmith hears the worries of an anxious highlander, but those pieces still have laughs. And razor-sharp sketches like self-medicating with hair bangs (yes, really) show the writers effective at marrying humor and pathos in an incredibly short amount of time.
And one can’t forget the cast assembled to pull off this mad caper. In addition to KML veterans Alsa Bruno, Nick Hongola, and Melanie Marshall (who has the evening’s funniest line as a kid with a fondness for breakfast), How Does that Make You Feel? also marks the return of artistic director Allison Page as a KML performer. It’s been a while since she tossed on the dark hoodie to play an oblivious Justin Beiber, but she makes her return a memorable one with two slowly-spoken words: “Bec-ca Jor-gen-stern…” The disdain with which that name is uttered as the aforementioned bearded dad is worth the price of admission on its own.
Making their KML debut are actors Courtney Merrell (whom I last saw in Ray of Light’s 2013 production of Carrie: The Musical) and New Yorker Sam Wessels. You’d never know it was their first time, the way they play off their castmates with well-timed energy. Merrell is part of the two snake oil sketches, promoting the non-existent efficacy of getting bangs and the energetic emptiness of therapy-via-Snickers with Wessels. The latter also has a great moment as an anthropomorphic lion trying to hype up his partner (Hongola) before they head out to the Roman Colosseum to munch on some gladiators. Great work all around.
(And yes, Jan does an excellent job of wrangling all these wild personalities together.)
The thing that assholes like Bill Maher don’t get is that there’s a difference between making fun mental illness and using humor to make sense of your mental health. The quote at the top does the latter, as does KML’s show. In a Western world so divided between “make yourself feel better through work” and “one pill will solve everything”, How Does that Make You Feel? laughs from the middle ground of the uninsured and overly-anxious.
Like the best KML shows, it mines personal pain and awkwardness with hilarious results. It’s not only a great hour of comedy, but it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen in this still-young year.
How Does that Make You Feel? is scheduled to run until the 30th of March on the mainstage of PianoFight in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 1 hour with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.