Kevin Kling: a master monologist at the Rep

A near-fatal accident gave the author a path back to life and a comic understanding for some of the bigger mysteries of life.
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Kevin Kling and Simone Perrin in <i>How? How? Why? Why? Why?</i>, now playing at the Seattle Rep. (Chris Bennion)

A near-fatal accident gave the author a path back to life and a comic understanding for some of the bigger mysteries of life.

Thank goodness for Australia. The land Down Under figures briefly but significantly in Kevin Kling's How? How? Why? Why? Why?, the playwright-performer's stirring new monologue about disabilities, Dante, and dogs. The show is premiering at Seattle Repertory Theatre through April 19. How? is a series of Kling's tales, some taken from his recent book, The Dog Says How, about growing up in Osseo, Minnesota and a 2002 near-death experience widely known to fans of his National Public Radio commentaries. Alternately sitting and standing in a simple, living-room set in the Rep's Leo K. Theater, Kling explains how he hovered between life and the hereafter following a serious motorcycle accident. While doctors fought to save him, Kling felt himself "heading for this amazing sense of peace." He describes knowing he could continue on that pain-free journey or return "to this plane of existence, where it was made clear there would be consequences." While unconscious, Kling remembered he once came close to marrying an Australian woman so he could escape forever into her country's tranquil beauty. Instead, he decided to go home: "I need tension. I'm the kind of guy who wears socks with sandals just because I know it ticks people off." Kling similarly returned from death's temptations to further master the monologist's craft. His storytelling ease is apparent in How?, but those consequences he mentions are in striking, visual contrast to his buoyant manner. The most obvious legacy of Kling's terrible injuries is a right arm that simply droops, the result of nerve damage. Born with Muscular Dystrophy, Kling's left arm is short and his hand malformed, so when he holds his limp, right forearm, perhaps comfortingly, in his left hand, his gaunt frame takes on a tortured dignity. No pity required, however. The severity of Kling's suffering is undercut by his self-effacing humor, upbeat insistence that "disabled" does not mean "unable," and a determination in How? to remain focused on bigger mysteries in life than his fate — such as love and empathy. Material from The Dog Says How that finds its way into Kling's show becomes far more than interpretation. As with fellow Minnesotan Garrison Keillor, Kling's stories convey immediacy and warmth when spoken. Remoteness, passiveness, and foreignness of experience evaporate for an audience caught in the rush of Kling's oral memoirs. Which is what this play, and for that matter, all of Kling's performance pieces for stage (21A, Come and Get It, Home and Away, which also premiered at Seattle Rep) and radio (All Things Considered) are about. In the tradition of the late Spalding Gray, Kling talks about his life, weaving threads of experience into thematic tapestries that become more than the sum of collected vignettes. Storytelling may be the most ancient kind of theatre, yet its enduring hold on us makes it perennially contemporary. How?'s menu of stories can change from one show to the next, depending on Kling's reading of his audience. Chances are, most evenings, you can hear him recall playing baseball as a kid while his friend Cheryl — with whom he organized a wildly successful, neighborhood Muscular Dystrophy carnival — cheers him on. Or the time he saw three generations of German Shorthaired Pointers cooperatively retrieve a bird with instinctive deference to their individual ages and experience: The vigorous four-year-old passes the bird to a veteran 13-year-old, who gives it to a puppy to give to their approving master. The lessons that come out of Kling's accident are the gold in this show, locating blessings in life and understanding that even if they're fleeting, sometimes a moment can, in some sense, last forever. (Kling's recollection of a story about a married couple whose love sees them through their unexpected death is stunning.) As in Dante's Divine Comedy, Kling says, one can't reach Paradise without a stint in Hell to rub off hard edges. Speaking of divine, How? is graced by the radiantly bemused Simone Perrin. A singer, accordion player, and actress who frequently appears in Kling's stage productions, Perrin watches Kling as closely as Tina Weymouth used to watch David Byrne in the days of Talking Heads performances. Perrin complements the narrator's tales with cleverly-selected songs and a little role-playing; their mutual affection warms the room. Director David Esbjornson, The Rep's artistic director, brings everything to an unexpectedly musical conclusion, reaffirming Kling's contention that life is hardly over, no matter his physical limitations. Think of it this way: There would be no How? How? Why? Why? Why? if, in 2005, Kling hadn't, as he puts it, "hit the brakes and from my body... flew."


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Tom Keogh

Tom Keogh is a longtime writer about classical music, books, and film.