Totes Blessed, the latest production by SF-based sketch comedy group Chardonnay, takes a tongue-in-cheek and dagger-in-heart romp through all that is “basic,” breezily exploring the sharp-toothed, exploitative edges that exist between modern commercial culture and female empowerment.
The show, which is about 80 intermissionless minutes long, features five of the core Chardonnay women (and one dude) returning to the large PianoFight blackbox, where the troupe has had an established residence. In a series of interconnected, scripted sketch bits, the group attempts, indirectly, to suss out what it means to be basic and whether basicness (basicity?) itself actually merits the sneers and derision that it so commonly incites. Kale, brunch, pumpkin spice lattes, leggings, and other modern Pinterest trappings are on cyclical display, and the comedians test their various permutations in settings that range from East Bay real estate open houses to spiritual retreats for Gwyneth Paltrow’s “lifestyle brand,” goop.
Nearly every aspect of contemporary urban female life is hauled up in caricature and appraised, and whether you find this approach hilarious or troubling will likely depend on what you brought with you into the theater, and possibly also on how many elderflower “Basic Bitch” cocktails or glasses of “Rosé All Day” (both available at the PianoFight bar) you drank before witnessing it. In fact, the prominent use of the word “bitch” is notable in itself, because it’s certainly going to be a flash point for many potential audience members. The line between reclaimed word and slur is fine, if not totally invisible, and one person’s in-group therapy is easily another’s obscenity. Totes Blessed does ultimately go to great lengths to prove that their hearts lie with the former camp, but the motivations may not justify the means for some people.
Certain sketches illustrate the tight shear border between conscious social needling and callous mockery particularly well, and the best of these, for my money, is the female pirate scene. A group of lady swashbucklers happens upon a mermaid who has previously only met male sailors, and a great setup is born. The pirates want nothing except direction to treasure, but the mermaid has only a trove of hackneyed feminine lures. Her seductive singing is politely endured and then casually roasted as being off-key, and the crew continues to refer to her, totally unromantically, as “woman fish.” The traditional, objectifying setup of a mermaid is made to look ridiculous and funny, with clever writing juxtaposing a familiar patriarchal trope against a new reality. But the mermaid is still cast as frivolous and dumb, and there cuts the second side of the sword.
If mermaids, leggings, and pumpkin spice candles are just aspects of a male-dominated society, then maybe the women who embrace these things are not a reasonable target for anger. The members of Chardonnay explore this concept, too, passing frequent judgment on their own punchlines. As the script unfolds, the sentiment becomes overt, with statements of “We’re all pretty basic, and we’re okay with it!” bleeding into direct shellings of “the white patriarchy” and the idea that basicness itself is “the product of capitalism,” just another gendered arrow in the back “for liking what capitalism told us to like in the first place.”
And, ultimately, that seems to be the message of the clearly smart ladies who power Totes Blessed. They may sometimes choose to snort lines of pumpkin spice, or to hit it straight out of a PSL bong, but don’t judge them; basicness is a patriarchal construct, and they won’t stand up straight for its benchmarks. They’ll defend brunch right to Steve Maraboli’s asshole face, if they need to, so don’t try to tell them how to live their #bestlife. They already know what they’re doing, and yes, it may occasionally involve succulents or mason jars.
Other aspects of the evening hit a high note, too, with the purest of these being the video teaser for “The Roommate.” Separately directed by Courtney Quirin, this segment is a prerecorded satirical trailer for an upcoming television show, set in San Francisco and aping The Bachelor, in which viewers follow a young woman as she picks among applicants for her spare, ludicrously tiny city bedroom. For five minutes or so, both male and female stereotypes are skewered, as our city’s horrendous housing situation is burned in righteous, comedic effigy in the backdrop. The laughs and outright technical production value are both high, and it’s hard to imagine not liking this part of the overall performance.
If you like your comedy infused with leading women and pangs of SF-style social consciousness, then Totes Blessed will likely deliver for you. Polar bears become homeless, one farcical vignette at a time, while contemporary political ladies snipe at each other. Self-absorbed new-agers with a podcast rail against vaccines (“Uh, there’s no vaccine for ebola…” … “Oh…great!”), and women are sold expensive rebadged water to make their hair romantically drenched. One sketch even has three (three!) short musical numbers, as a circle of friends grapples with the new reality of one of its members being pregnant. “I Love Your Fucking Baby; I Really, Really Do” may not win a Grammy, but it does piquantly capture an ambivalent, common sentiment.
As Chardonnay’s name suggests, however, the issues that the group tackles are rooted firmly in a narrow band of society. Uncharitably, this would be the bourgeois, the white, and a mainstream, if progressive, liberalness. But that might be calling these savvy actors basic, in as unfair and dismissive a way as any other pejorative use of the word could be. Just like the society that it lambastes, Totes Blessed is complicated, and it intends to make you laugh while you try to decide which parts are funny, which parts are contemptible, and which parts might actually be both.
Totes Blessed is playing on Friday and Saturday nights through November 18th at SF’s PianoFight, all shows at 7pm. Get tickets here.
- Saturday, 11/4
- Friday, 11/10
- Saturday, 11/11
- Friday, 11/17
- Saturday, 11/18