Disclaimer: The best way to experience Nate: A One Man Show is to dive into it without knowing anything about it in advance. So if you haven’t watched it yet, save this and come back later. It’s worth it.
Now and then, you stumble upon work that surprises you and lingers on long after the credits have finished rolling. Do you think you’ve seen it all when it comes to specials? Think again. Actor, comedian and writer Natalie Palamides has in her boundary-pushing performance as Nate created something that feels genuinely original. It’s not often a taped live performance — or anything —affects you as strongly as Nate: A One Man Show does.
Everything begins with Nate riding out on a miniature motorcycle, past smoke and pyrotechnics, as rock music plays in the background. When he ditches the bike, he grabs a piece of plywood — with a spray-painted penis on one side and the word “applause” on the other — to mimic guitar playing. The gloriously ridiculous entrance reaches its peak when Nate puts a scoop of protein powder in his mouth and spits it out over a flame, only to awkwardly begin coughing up the leftover dry particles. While its opening might feel superficial, Nate: A One Man Show is much more complex underneath the surface with its commentary on consent, masculinity, and human behaviour.
Nate is essentially a caricature of a macho man dressed in a fleece-lined lumberjack jacket with nothing underneath and low riding camouflage cargo pants. When he suddenly pulls out a cooler with La Croix inside and begins to pass them out to the crowd, it initially feels like a surprisingly tender gesture. “First one to finish, gets to do whatever they want to whoever they want in this room,” Nate declares, and while it might sound like fair competition, it’s rigged.
As Nate starts asking for permission to touch people in the audience, Palamides promptly lets her audience know that they’re not necessarily going to enjoy every part of her show. The previous laughter is now gone and replaced by nervousness. The first person Nate approaches says no, and Nate casually walks away. Later, he shrugs his shoulders and says, “All you gotta do is ask.” The thing is, Nate doesn’t care if it is a yes or no. First and foremost, he’s delighted that he’s asking and showing everyone how good he is. Even though this lesson on consent is straightforward, we’re about to see how asking can still become confusing.
Ultimately, when the dust from the protein powder settles, all that remains is a confused and heartbroken Nate. His girlfriend recently dumped him, but he can’t figure out why (he asked her about everything!). “Come on Nate, express yourself,” he tells himself as he pours La Croix down his face as a substitute for tears. In search of relationship advice, he reaches out to the audience, only to recognise the presence of his ex-girlfriend. This interaction not only bruises Nate’s pride but ends with him daring the new boyfriend (and random audience member) to join him onstage in a shirtless wrestling match.
Cooling down in the shower after his inevitable defeat, Nate’s removal of clothes reveals nudity — real nipples and fake genitalia — as clumps of glued-on body hair travel down his body. All he needs right now is his best friend. “Hey Lucas,” he yells out into the darkness. No answer. With each call and subsequent silence, the tension rises. It’s basically an experiment in human behaviour, a competition to see how long we can stand the feeling of having things left in the air. It’s only a matter of time until it gets too unbearable, and someone must solve the tension — even though it equals having to leave the safety of one’s seat. After the fourth try, an audience member finally answers (“Hi Nate”) and the show continues. However, Nate soon begins pushing him to bad-mouth his ex-girlfriend, and he doesn’t stop until he’s pleased.
As remote viewers, there’s never the chance (or risk) of us ending up as a pawn in the narrative, but the feeling of unease is undeniably still there. A portion of this success undoubtedly comes from the filming crew that does a great job of capturing the queasy combination of excitement and (for lack of a better word) the danger that’s in the air when Nate is on stage.
At the beginning of the special, Nate demonstrated the basics of consent before somewhat pushing it to the side until the final sixteen minutes. During a date between Nate and his art teacher Ms Jackson (a mannequin voiced by Palamides), Nate is the first one to pass out. When he awakens, he suggests that they should call it a night. Instead of listening, Ms Jackson commands him to orally pleasure himself. Even though Nate seems reluctant, it happens. When she explicitly tells him that they should have sex, Nate agrees, but after a while, she goes quiet. After calling out her name a couple of times, whilst continuing the act, she awakens. When it happens again, Nate eventually decides to call Lucas for help. As they begin to carry Ms Jackson home, Nate suddenly asks, “Is what I did wrong?”
The audience barely dares to answer, as if they’re afraid to say the wrong thing. However, Nate genuinely doesn’t know and that’s why he’s asking. When we’re faced with his question, it feels like it happens out of nowhere, and once again, the silence in the room is almost unbearable until one audience member dares to speak up. Nate asks again, begging for a simple answer, only to be met by differentiating responses. People are baffled. Suddenly we’re forced to navigate our feelings along with Nate instead of thinking we’re above his confusion. Furthermore, the question brings up another issue: When does a drunken hook-up become something illegal?
You can’t give consent if you’re in an altered mental state, such as being drunk or high, but in reality, this is how many people have sexual encounters. These situations have always existed and, for many of us, they became normalised in our adolescence through fictional coming-of-age narratives that usually depicted sex and parties going hand-in-hand. In these portrayals, alcohol was seen as “liquid courage” for the nervous and insecure at best, calculating and predatory at worst. Where do we draw the line between tipsy and too drunk? What happens when all involved parties are intoxicated well beyond being able to consent but neither has ulterior motives or intent to harm? Is asking always enough?
It’s possible to have consenting sexual interactions while using alcohol and/or drugs, but we need to recognise that they deeply affect decision-making, our judgement and our ability to effectively communicate as well as read and interpret others’ communication. Furthermore, what equals too much for someone isn’t the same as someone else’s limit. Factors including body size, tolerance and the type of alcohol and/or drug consumed play a significant role when starting to differentiate the intoxicated from the incapacitated. Ultimately, it’s important to recognise that the range of possibilities consists of more than either sober or blackout drunk and that in itself is an issue since it’s usually not addressed.
Asking is great, but as evident through Nate and Ms Jackson’s date, it isn’t enough when other occurrences indicate that neither can make well-reasoned decisions. In the end, it’s about communication, mutual respect and reassessing the situation. All involved parties have a responsibility to be attentive and ensure that there is unambiguous consent at all times, as well as that no one is too drunk to engage in the necessary checking-in.
The geniality of Nate: A One Man Show lies in the fact that its discussion of consent never comes across as lecturing. Palamides isn’t positioning her audience in this situation to scold them about their responses. She’s simply trying to start a conversation — or, at least, a consciousness — about these situations many regularly find themselves in but often don’t think about.
Furthermore, with Nate’s question still echoing, we can begin to apply it to Palamides’ own treatment of her audience and reevaluate her performance as an hour-long experiment of consent in another collision, namely between performer and audience. The relationship between performer and audience is necessary, maybe more than ever in Nate: A One Man Show. However, when does a performer cross a line with their audience?
There’s a continuous underlying sense of every participant being pressured beyond their comfort, primarily noticeable in their awkward body language and facial expressions. When we see these unsettled audience members, we can guess that they feel like they can’t walk away from what’s happening because they did volunteer themselves in the first place. Maybe they follow through because they feel like they should (“too late to say no now”) or because they don’t want to let anybody down. In the end, regardless of how they’re feeling, they do everything Nate wants them to do.
Throughout the special, Palamides masterfully distracts her audience with silliness. This is vital because it momentarily leaves the audience feeling less guarded, which, in turn, is necessary for the special’s experiment. There’s even some comedic relief to be found during the date, specifically when Ms Jackson accidentally falls apart (Palamides’ line delivery of “Your body fell apart” still makes me laugh all these rewatches later). It results in laughter because, after all, it’s an absurd reminder that it’s all fictitious. However, when Nate and Lucas later carry Ms Jackson, there’s an undeniable distinction. Even though we know it’s the same mannequin, there’s nothing funny about it. While Nate: A One Man Show is silly, it never happens at the expense of the important, but rather, as a mechanism to more deeply explore the heavier themes.
Nate: A One Man Show doesn’t solely feel unique due to its content, but also because it demands something in return from its audience, who must actively trust Palamides for the special to succeed in making an impact. Regardless of what the live audience might’ve thought at the time, Palamides’ creation of discomfort is crucial because, without it, the severity surrounding consent would feel way less urgent of an issue to address. However, whether it’s Nate or the questions she raises through him, Palamides is never provoking solely for the sake of being provocative. Instead, there’s careful reasoning and vulnerability behind everything.
When we reconnect with Nate, he’s showering and once again — this time to himself — he asks if what he did was wrong. “Come on Nate, express yourself,” he says and it doesn’t take long until his feelings crash into him like an unavoidable wave all at once. When Nate suddenly starts touching his penis, it initially creates some comedic relief. However, it abruptly ends with him violently swinging it around until finally throwing it away. Following this is a clever but haunting moment that has occupied my mind since the special’s release.
Even though there’s nudity throughout the special, nothing is as shocking as the moment Nate pulls off his moustache and fleetingly becomes Natalie. It’s a jarring tonal shift that has the audience choking on their own laughter, as the cries that before were so distinctly Nate’s now doesn’t sound like Nate at all. The screams seem to come from someplace deep down, from a more personal place of desperation and pain, and it hits me like a punch to the stomach every single time. After pulling off the wig, the cry changes again, but this time to Ms Jackson.
During this scene, Ms Jackson admits that she remembers certain parts, like pressuring Nate, but not everything. In the end, Ms Jackson pressured Nate into doing something he didn’t consent to and while their following shared sexual act was consented to, Nate continued the act on two separate occasions while she was unconscious. When they reconnect the next day, neither talks about feeling assaulted. Instead, they both vigorously apologise because they feel like they sexually assaulted each other.
Nate is a cartoonish portrayal of masculine excess, and therefore it’s easy to feel convinced of his “realness.” After all, he’s only an exaggerated version of demeanours and traits we’re already familiar with. While Nate undoubtedly acts obnoxious at times, Palamides makes sure that everything about him doesn’t leave a sour aftertaste. Nate might think of himself as someone in control, but in reality, he’s beaten down. He communicates a desire to express emotions, but he seems incapable to acknowledge most of them, possibly due to a fear of coming across as feminine. While Palamides’ choice to show Nate’s penis might only feel like a visual gag, it also bears meaning. Palamides undresses Nate both mentally and physically, and her later removal of the superficial indicators of Nate’s “realness” as a man (hair and genitalia), only underlines the charade of masculinity. Nate is at once a symbol of toxic masculinity as well as a clueless guy stuck in a harmful loop genuinely wishing to be better.
With Nate: A One Man Show, Palamides introduces character clowning to an audience who might primarily associate clowns with red noses and cream pies sliding down faces. Above all, clowning necessitates a willingness to take risks and Palamides does nothing but dive headfirst into the unknown. It isn’t often you will find yourself on the edge of your seat watching a special, but Nate: A One Man Show is a masterclass in live performing.
From beginning to the end, Palamides captivates her audience with her indisputable talent, one grunt at a time. Whether it’s the ask-axe-ex-chant, the handshake or the painting presentation, she’s spellbinding as she moves between both enchanting and repelling her audience. Palamides is a force of nature, maybe especially when she’s fleetingly playing both Nate and Ms Jackson as victims and perpetrators alike.
Throughout Nate: A One Man Show, you’ll laugh, but at certain times you might even ask yourself whether it was okay to do so. Palamides’ performance feels intimate, sometimes borderline intrusive, but in the end, I’ve never in my life been so excited to feel so uncomfortable.
Nate: A One Man Show is available to stream globally on Netflix
by Rebecca Rosen
Rebecca Rosén (she/her) is a writer from Sweden with a university background in film, TV and gender studies. While enjoying everything from extremely silly to gory, she thinks that it’s better if you care a little bit too much about what you’re watching than not at all. You can find her on Twitter.
Categories: Feminist Criticism