Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: It’s Christmas Goddamnit!/The Annoyance Theatre

Christmas, Comedy, Holiday, Recommended Comedy Shows, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
(l to r) Bridget Ballek, Ryan Ben, Rosie Moan, Lee Russell, Mantas Dumcius, Jo Scott, Kellen Terret, Jeffrey Murdoch/Review: Shannon Jenkins

Bridget Ballek, Ryan Ben, Rosie Moan, Lee Russell, Mantas Dumcius, Jo Scott, Kellen Terret, Jeffrey Murdoch/Review: Shannon Jenkins

RECOMMENDED

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 »

Review: The Raven & the Messenger/The Annoyance Theatre

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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: 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.

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(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 »

Review: Dead Broads Yapping/The Public House Theatre

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dead broads yapping picRECOMMENDED

I would never wish ill upon great women of history Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart and America’s beloved Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Nonetheless, I am glad they all died so I could enjoy their comedic gifts as presented from beyond the grave in “Dead Broads Yapping.”

Staged as a talk show from the afterlife, the evening’s hour provides the talented trio of Courtney Crary (the martyr), Caroline Nash (the aviatrix) and Marie Maloney (the First Lady) in a setting, à la “The View,” in which to dish and riff on current events and historical happenings as well as chat it up with other legends.

The show’s “producer” and our twenty-sixth president Theodore Roosevelt introduces the ladies and interjects throughout with frequently ribald asides. Taking breaks from the winning interplay between them, Teddy and the three Dead Broads each get a solo segment. The most successful of these, featuring fashion commentary from Jackie, uncoincidentally mirrors most closely the known interests and personality of the deceased dame it spotlights. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Bye Bye Liver: The Chicago Drinking Play/The Public House Theatre

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Photo: Patrick Lothian

Photo: Patrick Lothian

RECOMMENDED

Before this hour of booze-soaked sketch comedy even starts, the audience spends plenty of time drinking in the lobby. And again in their seats after the house opens. And don’t worry, there are plenty of waitstaff dashing around throughout the show ready to serve you more shots, cocktails and buckets of beer. Unsurprisingly, there’s a telling scent of alcohol in the air as the show starts, with an emcee (Josh Dunkin, charming and smarmy in equal measure) who broadly states, “I’m assuming everybody here enjoys drinking… otherwise you’re in the wrong show!”

What follows is a cocktail of comedy scenework and interactive drinking games (name that tune, anyone?). The bits are laugh-out-loud funny (particularly a lengthy one between Sherra Lasley and Mike Barton that showcases the effects of various alcohols on a three-year-anniversary date) and the audience participation is engaging and just rowdy enough to remind you that most of the audience is buzzed, if not downright drunk (there’s a reason everyone in the cast is miked). Keyboardist Tilliski Ramey provides a skillfully comedic soundtrack throughout. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: TJ & Dave/iO Theater

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TJandDaveRECOMMENDED

It’s late on a blustery winter night in Wrigleyville and aside from a few mounds of icy snow the streets are mostly empty. But inside the iO Theater there’s a line that bunches around the ticket window, the entry and the stairs to the second floor, as those who booked in advance pick up their tickets and others anxiously wait to find out if any seats will open up at the last minute.

“I’m just here on the off chance that a ticket might open up,” the guy directly in front of me tells me eagerly. On a sub-freezing weeknight when most sensible people are staying home and warm, this 11pm show is sold out, with a waiting list. And this is fairly standard for TJ & Dave, a duo of improvisers that perform in this slot every Wednesday night at iO and have been working together for more than a decade.

As with most improvisational shows, the setup is minimal—the lights go down, a song plays, the actors take the stage (a few chairs make up the entirety of the set). Wearing what might be described as “business casual,” TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi take their time before getting started. Jagodowski puts his hands over his eyes and slowly looks over the crowd with a knowing smile, while Pasquesi crisscrosses the stage in long strides, sometimes seeming to be rearranging the chairs, sometimes just roaming. They then introduce each other, say the infamous words, “trust us this is all made up,” and without a suggestion the show begins. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Porch Play/Theatre Momentum

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RECOMMENDED

Andy Polacek, Jillian Markowitz and Sal Piccolo

Andy Polacek, Jillian Markowitz and Sal Piccolo

A visit to Theatre Momentum’s website describes their current production as “an improvised one-act play set in a single location.” As promised, the show consists of one continuous, real-time, forty-five-minute scene, with each player sticking to a sole character for the entire show. As an audience member, if you so choose, you are left to wonder just how much of the show is improvised: The entire evening? The basic plot? Certain plot twists? Just a bit of dialogue? I found myself not caring. As the company’s site also explains, “Theatre Momentum strives for work that is theatre that happens to be improvised.” As a viewer, I approached it as such. Unconcerned with the degree to which the show may or may not be improvised, I experienced the show as it was presented: unpretentious, conversational, casual, loose and, above all, humorous. The staging is simple, there are no props to speak of, and the performances could be taking place in your living room. It all results in a satisfying, enjoyable and rather brief evening of entertainment. Read the rest of this entry »