Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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 »

Review: Panic on Cloud 9/Second City

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(l to r) Chelsea Devantez, Paul Jurewicz, Emily Walker and Christine Tawfik

Chelsea Devantez, Paul Jurewicz, Emily Walker and Christine Tawfik/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

As the title suggests, the writer/performers of this 103rd Second City Mainstage revue don’t just throw bits together based on recent headlines, they very carefully string them together to highlight the unending stream of media-enhanced panic that most Americans have been subjected to in recent memory. Gun violence, disappearing airplanes, Ebola, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, bullying, hacked cloud storage… the list goes on. And perhaps there is cause for panic when even comedy oases are intentionally reminding you about all the shit that’s going down around you.

Luckily, this collection of sketches, directed by Second City stalwart Ryan Bernier, is calibrated to induce fits of laughter rather than panic attacks. And while there are a few unfortunate misses, the cast spends the majority of this two-hour show delivering hilarious hit after hit, with a few surprisingly emotional moments woven in for good measure. It’s worth noting that though the sketches flow together nicely, each new scene has a different vibe to it and, more so than any Second City revue I can remember, you can begin to pick up on the influences of various cast members (assuming they’re writing the scenes they’re in). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Improvised Twilight Zone/The Annoyance Theatre

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(l to r) Jason Ouimette, Bridget Visser, James Freetly, Danny Galvin, Susie Allen, Peter Williams, Connor Doyle/Photo: Shannon Jenkins

Jason Ouimette, Bridget Visser, James Freetly, Danny Galvin, Susie Allen, Peter Williams, Connor Doyle/Photo: Shannon Jenkins

Revealing the twisted and sometimes supernatural underpinnings to events both historical and contemporary, “Improvised Twilight Zone” takes the format of the legendary series and translates it for the small stage (literally, it’s staged in the Small Theatre in The Annoyance Theatre’s new home on Belmont). Director Kyle Dolan’s troupe of improvisers (including a guitarist providing eerie scene music and “Twilight Zone” themes galore) take three suggestions and give their inexplicable backstory in classic episodic fashion.

The night I saw the show (along with a sold-out crowd) the suggestions were “immigration,” “JFK” (“Just JFK generally…?” responded the host bemusedly) and “Kim Kardashian.” Each of these suggestions were subsequently spun into a bizarre story of intrigue and mystery, with “immigration” leading to the revelation that, in 1961, children’s author Beverly Cleary discovered a tunnel to another dimension where she stole the stories for her most popular works. Similarly, Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O were revealed to have been collaborating Russian spies and a VHS tape of the “sweetest soccer game in all the world” went viral and poisoned the minds of those who viewed it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Raven & the Messenger/The Annoyance Theatre

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows 1 Comment »
Photo: Shannon Jenkins

Photo: Shannon Jenkins

RECOMMENDED

As the saying goes, truth is often stranger than fiction. When it comes to the world of religion, the line between the two (truth and fiction) becomes blurrier and blurrier. And for a large number of figures within various religious frameworks, it can even become impossible to separate truth from fiction, to separate history from mythology, and to separate man from his claims to the mind of the divine.

The Reverend Jim Jones is certainly one of those figures and in this darkly funny little musical currently playing at The Annoyance, with book and lyrics by Charlie McCrackin and peppy music by Lisa McQueen, the blurry origin story of Jim Jones is given a surprisingly robust and unflinching examination.

“You can’t tell a story about Jim Jones that doesn’t end in Jonestown,” says our narrator near the end of this frequently absurdist recounting of a meeting between Jones (a wild-eyed and appropriately harried Paul Jurewicz) and the self-named Reverend Major Jealous Divine (a captivating Greg Hollimon). As written by McCrackin, the crux of the story essentially plays out as the origin story for a supervillain, where we already know that our protagonist’s actions will eventually lead to the deaths of nearly 1,000 people. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Hitch*Cocktails/The Annoyance Theatre

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Bruce Phillips and Alex Young

Bruce Phillips and Alex Young

This Hitchcock-themed improv show features not one but two drinking games happening simultaneously. The first is the more familiar audience drinking game. In this case you’re asked to drink every time a pun is spoken, a Hitchcock film title is said or someone is murdered, among other impetuses. The second, and less familiar, is a drinking game that happens on the stage, because the cocktails portion of this punny title includes not just the audience but the actors as well. In this case, the actors are working with a wet bar and are drinking throughout the show with one rule: any time a character is given a drink, he or she must finish it before the scene ends. And these actors love to serve each other.

As can be expected, this leads to some increasingly hit-or-miss comedy bits, with a number of risky endeavors paying off with huge laughs and several others petering out. Studies show that the biphasic curve holds true for the enjoyment of alcohol on an individual level—essentially, you will feel better as your blood alcohol content (BAC) approaches .055 and worse from then on—and so too goes this show. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: That’s Weird Grandma/Barrel of Monkeys

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Photo: Michelle Alba

Photo: Michelle Alba

RECOMMENDED

Children of all ages braved a rainstorm Monday night to hear songs about jelly, see a video game where a taco takes on a squash and visit a world where a person lives in a sewer with a monkey as a butler. Who else could come up with this stuff but kids? Now in its seventeenth season, Barrel of Monkeys hilariously bring the stories of third, fourth and fifth graders from Chicago Public Schools to life in “That’s Weird, Grandma” at the Neo-Futurist Theater.

Since 1997, Barrel of Monkeys has lived out their slogan, “Kids write it. We do it. World Saved!” by working with kids in fifty-seven Chicago Public Schools to create and perform more than 300 student-written stories annually. “That’s Weird, Grandma” is a revue that features some of the funniest, weirdest and most creative writing youngsters are able to craft and share.

Barrel of Monkeys’ artistic director, Molly Brennan, cleverly directs an outstanding ensemble cast that features company members Kassi Bleifuss, Lizzie Bracken, Linsey Falls, Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, Emjoy Gavino, Nick Hart, Tai Palmgren, Tim Soszko, Curtis Williams, Donnell Williams and Rachel Wilson. The set is minimal, but quite a few colorful costumes and props help keep kids’ attention focused on the stage. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Apes of Wrath/Second City e.t.c.

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »
(l-r) Punam Patel, Carisa Barreca, Brooke Breit, Tim Ryder, Asher Perlman and Eddie Mujica/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Punam Patel, Carisa Barreca, Brooke Breit, Tim Ryder, Asher Perlman and
Eddie Mujica/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

“That’s cool as hell!” declares an enthralled pre-recorded voice, breaking away from his own faux deep thoughts about the universe, as the six-person cast of “Apes of Wrath”—the latest revue to hit the Second City e.t.c. stage—holds multicolored balls of light in front of themselves on a darkened stage. This is a near-perfect introduction to the introspective-yet-easily-distractible theme that runs through this production and, if we’re being honest, through most of our internet-connected brains: on one hand we want to be thoughtful and reflective, but on the other… ALL THE THINGS! ALL THE TIME!

Sure there have always been distractions, but it seems that in the last decade, the distractions have just been getting exponentially more impressive, more easily accessible and more instantly forgettable by the day. Notably, the first sketch of the night features a group of writers at BuzzFeed (now that “newspapers are no longer a thing”) teaching a new trainee the ropes of creating engaging content. BuzzFeed’s an easy target for confronting our microsecond attention-spans, but the cast (who are also the writers of the show) nail it without being blatant. And that’s what makes the majority of this two-act show work so well: even when addressing familiar topics, they find a new way in. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Depraved New World/Second City

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RECOMMENDED

John Hartman, Chelsea Devantez, Emily Walker, Tawny Newsome, Steve Waltien/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

John Hartman, Chelsea Devantez, Emily Walker, Tawny Newsome, Steve Waltien/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Though you can almost always count on Second City revues to deliver plenty of laughs, thematic consistency isn’t quite as reliable. “Depraved New World”—the 102nd revue to grace the main stage—manages both without short-changing either. And that consistent theme isn’t depravity—though there’s enough of that sprinkled throughout to justify the title. It’s a bit deeper than that. Under the direction of Mick Napier, the cast members of “Depraved New World” (who are also the writers) explore the internal struggle we all go through regarding our own insecurities, shortcomings and frustrations.

This concept is introduced in a song that finds various characters being confronted by their inner voices berating them for telling a stupid joke or asking a stupid question or just not making good enough brownies: in short, for being human. “Does everyone feel this way?” wonders one character after receiving an upbraiding by a nagging inner voice. And the unspoken answer is, “Of course.” Not feeling up to snuff is a universal theme that is instantly relatable to all. It also provides plenty of fodder for laughs. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Cupid Has a Heart On: A Musical Guide to Relationships/The Cupid Players at Stage 773

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RECOMMENDED

High-Res CUPID Photo“You don’t have to be smart to laugh at farts,” Louis C.K. sagely explained in one of his many oft-quoted interviews, “But you have to be stupid not to.” The ensemble of “Cupid Has a Heart On”—which has been consistently running for more than a decade (making it the longest-running sketch comedy show in Chicago history)—would certainly agree. But while most of the humor in here is decidedly lowbrow (one memorable punchline is literally “poop poop poop poop”), it’s also consistently laugh-out-loud funny. If you measure the success of a comedy show by setting up some kind of hits-to-misses ratio, rest assured that “Cupid’s” arrows solidly hit their marks much more often than not. Read the rest of this entry »