Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: AWK Presents… The Yuk Yuk Hour/The Annoyance Theatre

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues No Comments »

AWKPosterFinal(RGBforPosting)Some people, when moved to frenetic laughter, are prone to requiring so much air to replace the air lost due to their audible guffaws that they suck in through their noses, creating a snorting sound that usually does little to stifle their laughter and is often a source of enjoyment to all who surround. Everyone has experienced this. Some lady behind me was snorting during this show, and I laughed, because she was having a great time. It was funny to hear her snort. Unfortunately, this woman’s snorting might have have been the high mark of laughter throughout the show.

“AWK Presents… The Yuk Yuk Hour” is a collection of sketches that range in value from intriguing concepts with loads of potential to semi-disastrous recycled drivel. Sometimes, shows are just flat-out terrible and you walk away feeling fine because, hey, you can’t win ‘em all. This show was somehow more frustrating because the concepts had some legs, at times long, toned legs with supple quads and sculpted calves. You root for the sketch to pan out because the concepts are worthy of great writing and acting. The letdown is then perhaps greater when, out of maybe twenty sketches, only three end up providing genuine laughter. Back into your corduroy jeans, svelte gams. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Slamazons!/The Annoyance Theatre

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Slamazons

By no coincidence whatsoever, my saddest, oldest, drunkest (SOD) friend is a big fan of pro wrestling, so a trip to the Annoyance to see some ladies go at it seemed like just the ticket. Directed by Jillian Mueller, “Slamazons!” tells the tale of a women’s wrestling league, complete with a real wrestling ring in the middle of the theater. Most of the action takes place in the ring, including wrestling matches, tryouts and all the drama innate to the world of wrestling. The protagonist is Major-ette, a not-quite ex-marine who has turned to the world of wrestling because she couldn’t ejaculate into a cup, the final step of boot camp. It seems ridiculous—you would think that they kicked her out just because of the patriarchally dominated military industrial complex’s archaic means of weeding out women—but I have it on good word from former marines that yes, the last step of boot camp is spurting one off into a cup. No janks, no tanks. Read the rest of this entry »

An Invitation to Drama and Drinks: Sixty Years Ago, Chicago’s Compass Reinvented Comedy

Comedy, Profiles 1 Comment »
 David Shepherd, Barbara Harris and Andrew Duncan, Circa 1955

David Shepherd, Barbara Harris and Andrew Duncan, circa 1955

By Hugh Iglarsh

Two great experiments mark the mid-century history of the University of Chicago. The one everybody knows about was the first sustained nuclear reaction, which occurred in a crude little ziggurat of graphite and uranium under Stagg Field and produced, among other things, the apocalyptic paranoia of the Cold War. The second, which occurred sixty years ago this July in a tavern (long since razed) on East 55th Street, was David Shepherd’s and Paul Sills’ Compass, the first modern improvisational theater. This path-breaking cabaret act was, among other things, an attack on the Cold War cultural atmosphere, attempting to break through the paralyzing conformity via a new-old art form that was spontaneous, playful, self-reflexive, participatory … and very, very funny, to boot.

Pregnant with its own contradictions, the Chicago Compass experienced only middling commercial success and lasted but eighteen months, despite developing and launching an array of talent that included Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Shelley Berman, Severn Darden and Barbara Harris. It is now best known as the precursor of Second City, which offers a commercialized brand of the original Compass vision.

But what Second City popularized, the Compass actually invented. And now the story of that period of intense creative ferment is told in Mark Siska’s recently released documentary, “Compass Cabaret 55.” Created in the Compass spirit of low budgets and DIY ingenuity, Siska’s film is a fascinating backward look at what might almost be described as an alternative cultural history, one focused not on stars, spectacles and marketing, but rather intellect, community and imagination.  Read the rest of this entry »

Review: DRINK! The Sketch Comedy Drinking Game—Chicago Edition/Corn Productions

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Drink! 3

At the beginning of “DRINK! The Sketch Comedy Drinking Game—Chicago Edition,” the performers set a couple of stringent ground rules: you must drink, no puking (complete with directional info on where you can puke) and don’t be an asshole. These set the tone for a show that is as serious as the disclaimers. Corn Productions isn’t trying to go over your head with much in this show. They may, however, try to go through your liver and into your blood stream (biological process not fact-checked) with an impressive number of scenes that call for a drink per mention of a specific phrase or sound. Full participation in the games could potentially lead to a broken rule, but at no point does the cast allude to disapproval of more boozing. So, follow the rules, or at least puke in one of the designated toilets.

The show starts with an opening song and dance that I can’t remember because, well, I played the fucking game. The first actual sketch is some of the cast’s strongest material with impressions of Jason Sudeikis, Kathy Griffin and Mike Ditka—all of whom are trying to make it onto David Hasselhoff’s “Baywatch—Chicago!” Kallie Rolison’s Kathy Griffin is as on-point as Nifer Honeycutt’s Ditka is utterly ridiculous. No judgement; Ditka pops up a couple times throughout the show, gorging a hot dog drawn from his shorts and expertly hawking his special Ditka wine (“Wine is like a beer made out of grapes”). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Comedy Against Humanity/Under The Gun Theater

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Greg Callozzo, Sam Howard and Mollie Rehner/Photo: Kevin Mullaney

Greg Callozzo, Sam Howard and Mollie Rehner/Photo: Kevin Mullaney

The show’s setup is simple: the Card Czar (director Angie McMahon, also acting as emcee) reads a Cards Against Humanity prompt and if an audience member—all given three response cards upon entering the theater—thinks one of their cards is the best answer to that prompt they hold up their hand and are brought up on stage to read the card to the audience. There are two teams and each team gives a series of scenes based on either (or both) cards. Whichever team gets the most points wins. Fun stuff, right?

The “Comedy Against Humanity” website clearly states that “Audience members who show up drunk or otherwise intoxicated will be refused entry and their tickets will not be refunded.” A valid restriction for a rowdy improv show in Wrigleyville. Who wants belligerent audience members ruining a show? But Friday night the biggest interrupting force was one of the performers. She consistently talked over the emcee, yelled at the audience and even called a “time-out” mid-scene to awkwardly threaten another cast member for a perceived slight. Properly managed, this kind of acting out could potentially enhance the comedy, especially for a show like this, but here it just felt unnecessarily aggressive, with McMahon frequently shouting down spats so the show could move on. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Bawdy Bedtime Stories/Plan 9 Burlesque

Comedy, Recommended Comedy Shows, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Hot Tawdry/Photo: Jason Brown

Hot Tawdry/Photo: Jason Brown

RECOMMENDED

From my experience, burlesque shows tend to be under-rehearsed and badly scripted variety shows that can be fun, but seldom rise to the level of theater. With their current production of “Bawdy Bedtime Stories,” Plan 9 Burlesque rises above that description. You see, they’ve added a script. They’ve clearly rehearsed all the moments within it. And the product comes out enjoyable, funny and something more than the sum of its (lovely) parts.

At the production’s core is a storyline about Aly Oops (Alyson Grauer) discovering a book in the dressing room after one of Plan 9’s other shows. Instead of joining her cast mates at a bar across the street, she reads the fairy tales contained within, and they come alive on the stage around her. Many of the tales lead directly into stripping/dancing sets, but not all do. Others lead to very funny sketches that flesh out the concept nicely and result in many of the night’s heartiest laughs. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Trigger Happy/The Annoyance Theatre

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(l to r) Danny Catlow, Alison Banowski, Tim Lamphier, CJ Tour, Tyler Davis, Ryan Asher

Danny Catlow, Alison Banowsky, Tim Lamphier, CJ Tuor, Tyler Davis, Ryan Asher

RECOMMENDED

There are a number of well-recognized long-form improvisation structures. A good number of those were developed here in Chicago. When a theater company claims to have created a new style of long-form improv, in the land that gave the world “The Harold,” it is bold, indeed. What could this new style bring to the table that makes it novel and interesting?

Well, “Trigger Happy” puts forth a new style that is based on what director Mick Napier calls “a show that, although completely improvised and funny, still provides for the audience the look and feel of a staged production.” Since an improv show is different each time it is performed, and performers have on and off nights, I cannot really tell you if you’ll see a show of the same caliber as the one that I did on the night I attended (it was good—not side-splittingly funny, but still enjoyable and worth attending). What I can more fairly review is the structure of this new style and whether it appears to have staying power. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Messing with a Friend/The Annoyance Theatre

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MWF__SusanMick

Susan Messing and Mick Napier

RECOMMENDED

“Sorry I’m dressed like an S&M nanny,” Susan Messing announces in her smokily enticing voice as she takes the stage. She’s introducing the weekly improv show in which she and a fellow improviser (the titular “friend”—a new person each week) “fuck around for a while” on a set consisting of a door and two chairs. It’s been running late on Thursday nights for almost a decade now, originally at the old Annoyance space on Broadway and now in their new space on Belmont. And she’s still as fresh and foul-mouthed as ever, tapping into her own darkly funny psyche with a rambling set that gets better the darker and later it goes. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You!/Goodman Theatre and The Second City

Christmas, Comedy, Holiday, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Beth Melewski and Francis Guinan/Photo: Liz Lauren

Beth Melewski and Francis Guinan/Photo: Liz Lauren

It’s not a bad script that renders “Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You!” an unfunny, lackluster mess. It’s a terrible script. Penned by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort (Emmy Award winners for their work on “The Colbert Report”), this slapdash comedy show doesn’t know whether it wants to fully commit to skewering the classic Dickens tale or just throw together a slew of vaguely related  holiday sketches and hope audiences are in good enough Christmas spirits to laugh at them. The result is a surprisingly awkward evening of almost-comedy.

I say “surprisingly” because this is an exceptionally strong cast of comedians, led—and given gravitas—by Chicago stalwart Francis Guinan (who wouldn’t be out of place playing Scrooge in Goodman’s annual rendition of “A Christmas Carol” in the next theater over). But while the cast mostly throws themselves into the various bits—nineteenth-century commercials! A Dickensian orphan protest! Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson?!?—even their engagement with the material flags at times. Director Matt Hovde has not found the rhythm of this piece—if there is one—and it shows in various awkward lulls throughout. Even a nightly celebrity cameo—filled by Rick Bayless the night I saw it—feels shoehorned in and uninspired, leaving the celebrity bookending a brief “Peanuts” sketch by introducing it and then quickly saying goodnight afterwards. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Second City’s Holidazed and Confused Revue/Second City

Christmas, Comedy, Holiday, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »
(l to r) John Thibodeaux, Lisa Beasley, Scott Morehead, Marlena Rodriguez, Alan Linic, Liz Reuss/Photo:Kirsten Miccoli

John Thibodeaux, Lisa Beasley, Scott Morehead, Marlena Rodriguez, Alan Linic, Liz Reuss/Photo:Kirsten Miccoli

RECOMMENDED

There’s an internal tension with the holiday season between what everyone is supposed to feel—joyous, thankful and free—and how everyone actually feels—miserable, stressed-out and massively in debt. Whether it’s binge-eating on seasonally appropriate chocolates, comparing holiday bonuses, fretting about the inevitable failure of New Year’s resolutions or questioning the very theological basis on which the whole “Christmas” thing is conceived, people deal with this tension in different ways. And most of those ways are not very healthy. If there is a thematic backbone to Second City’s “Holidazed and Confused,” these myriad splinterings of the holiday cheer façade is it. (The thematic backbone is distinct from the business-side backbone which is, quite simply: “Holidays + Comedy = $$$.”)

Performed in the intimate app-and-a-nightcap environs of the UP Comedy Club, “Holidazed and Confused” is the standard Second City cocktail of sketch, improv and music. The material is consistent overall even if the quality is not totally homogenous; there are equal parts surprise and obviousness mixed in with a whole lot of solid work. There are jokes about Ebola and Tinder and pumpkin spice lattes and even one about Ferguson (which… yeah) and there are some very charming bits of audience interaction. Which reminds me, if you are planning on giving someone you love a gift card this holiday season, do not tell them that. They will make fun of you. In song. And everyone will laugh. Because it will be very funny. Read the rest of this entry »

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