Lisa Beasley, Tim Ryder, Carisa Barreca, Rashawn Nadine Scott, Eddie Mujica and Scott Morehead/Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Satire works best when it has enough of a bite that even those laughing can feel the teeth marks. Too gentle and the jokes just feel safe and congratulatory for those in agreement, but too much and it’s hard to keep laughing. This narrow playing space is what keeps a lot of sketch stuck in the relative safety of an inoffensive nonsense land (where, to be fair, some of the funniest concepts and characters live and flourish—not everything needs to have a point). Still, Chicago audiences are lucky that the cast members of “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?”—a slow build of a revue that starts out a bit flat and rises to some impressive peaks—know exactly when and how to push things for the sake of comedy serving as a message delivery system.
To be clear, “Soul Brother” nails some easy targets (and nails them well): the NFL’s record (or lack thereof) of supporting their players, Scientology, the George Lucas museum. But it also delves into much headier territory with equally funny aplomb: remembering 9/11, the dark underbelly of the sex trade, words white people can say that black people can’t, laws based on religious beliefs. And, surprisingly, there’s even a wordless sketch that hits many of the same emotional high-points as the legendary intro to “Up,” delivering more of a gut-punch than a punchline. Across the board, this is very smart, intentional writing. Read the rest of this entry »
Hot Tawdry/Photo: Jason Brown
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 »
Danny Catlow, Alison Banowsky, Tim Lamphier, CJ Tuor, Tyler Davis, Ryan Asher
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 »
Susan Messing and Mick Napier
“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 »
John Thibodeaux, Lisa Beasley, Scott Morehead, Marlena Rodriguez, Alan Linic, Liz Reuss/Photo:Kirsten Miccoli
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 »
Chelsea Devantez, Paul Jurewicz, Emily Walker and Christine Tawfik/Photo: Todd Rosenberg
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 »
Bridget Ballek, Ryan Ben, Rosie Moan, Lee Russell, Mantas Dumcius, Jo Scott, Kellen Terret, Jeffrey Murdoch/Review: Shannon Jenkins
Christmas is fast approaching. For those unfamiliar with the season, in the world of “It’s Christmas Goddamnit!” it’s that merry time of year when even the kookiest of families gather together under a shared roof to enjoy a collective meal while emotionally tormenting each other, reveling in both their familial similarities and their personality differences. Director Charley Carroll, along with a solid group of writer/actors, has created a cast of characters with eccentricities and mannerisms that highlight each comedian’s specific comedic strengths. To be clear up front, it is very seldom that any of these characters feel like real people; emotional realism takes a clear backseat to setups and punchlines, both physical and verbal.
Patriarch Bill (Jimmy Pennington) is welcoming his three children home for the holidays, along with his wealthy but ornery brother Eli (a frank and cocksure Lee Russell). He’s also invited his new bride Bev (Rosie Moan) and her mentally unstable and socially awkward son Cory (a stoic Ryan Ben). It’s only been two years since Bill’s first wife—the mother of his children—passed away and he’s hesitant to tell his kids that he’s remarried. As it turns out, his hesitancy may be well-founded as his adult children—a perpetually single tae-bo instructor (Bridget Ballek), a perpetually unemployed manchild (Jeffrey Murdoch) and a perpetually condescending psychiatrist (Jo Scott, a standout, constantly seeming to barely conceal a ready-to-break-chaaracter grin)—are perhaps not quite ready to welcome a new stepmother. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Shannon Jenkins
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 »
Photo: Michelle Alba
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 »
Punam Patel, Carisa Barreca, Brooke Breit, Tim Ryder, Asher Perlman and
Eddie Mujica/Photo: Todd Rosenberg
“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 »