The Red Line Runs Through It

At The Second City e.t.c.

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – The new Second City e.t.c. revue is called “A Red Line Runs Through It.” The subtitle could be “With Malice Toward All.” For those Second City watchers who have grumbled that the cabaret theater has lost some of its satirical teeth in recent years, your comedy ship has come in. The new show may smile and smile, but it takes no prisoners. 

The show’s title is a riff on the CTA Red Line, an often rider-unfriendly train that runs between Howard Street and 95th street. English majors in the audience may recognize the title comes from the short novel  “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean.

      The revue features much more political content than we’ve seen in the past several revues. Typically, a Second City presentation leans markedly toward the liberal side of the aisle, the heaviest barbs aimed at political conservatives and whatever smacks of right wing attitudes in American life. We will expect shots taken at Donald Trump, but the Democrats are not spared by e.t.c. Hillary, Barak, and Bernie draw stiletto-sharp lampoons, with Rahm Emanuel attracting particularly heavy fire.

          

                            Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

         Indeed the Chicago mayor dominates much of the show. His disarming portrait illuminates at the side of the stage while the ensemble shreds him for failures to deal with his city’s major problems, whether they be racial or educational. It’s pretty unforgiving stuff and sets the tone for the anger that filters through the evening’s discourses on the state of the union. There is even a funny skit recounting the sordid personal life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

     A particularly clever bit mocks political action committees (PAC) just by reciting the names of various organizations, most of them fictional but still revealing, as in “The People of Arkansas Against the Pronunciation of Kansas,” “The People of Delaware Against Being Interesting “ and “The People of Indiana Against Education.”

     The racial card is played with considerable vehemence. Two of the six members of the cast—Lisa Beasley and Aasia LaShay Bullock--are young African American women whose characters do not hold back on their views of the racial scene as seen from the black female perspective. Bullock in particular has a sassy streetwise attitude that is funny and trenchant at the same time. Bullock also scores big with a monologue in which a new mother narrates the inconveniences she endures while tending to the nonstop needs of a freshly born infant.
         Diversity is a hallmark of the show. In addition to the black Bullock and Beasley, there is a Korean (Peter Kim). He is only one of two males in the ensemble, a departure from the Second City tradition of ensembles that are evenly split gender-wise. There are two white actresses—Katie Klein and Julie Marchiano—and one white male, Scott Morehead. Beasley and Morehead are the only two holdovers from the previous e.t.c. revue but the entire cast melds together beautifully. In one scene, they join to send up smarmy evening television newscasts oozing with phony importance. The cast even words a prominent mention of Aldi’s discount supermarket in another skit.

               

                                       Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

       At my performance, there wasn’t much improvisation but what the cast offered certainly was choice. The cast solicited suggestions from the audience on what irritates them most in their daily lives. Someone came up with having to make a good cup of coffee. From that innocuous idea the entire ensemble built a mini musical filled with sharp wit and great wordplay. The bit was so smooth and effective that it was hard to accept that the scene really was an improvisation and not scripted beforehand.

         Morehead had some golden moments, one as a guy playing trivial pursuit in a bar who breaks down in operatic emotion as he screams out each answer, the trivia question having touched some deep wellspring in his personal life. Morehead also scored large in a dual skit with Kim in which he plays a straight guy who dresses in drag to accommodate his gay friend on his birthday.

     “A Red Line Runs Through It” has a very high decibel count. The sound effects by Jesse Case (who is also the musical director) blare in the background accompanying the music. The lighting design is also prominent throughout, giving this revue a heavy load of production values. The days of a simple bare stage and a few wooden chairs and half doors at stage rear belong to Second City’s classical days. The revue is still word-driven but technology plays a far more prominent role. As does the use of profanity. Many of the obscenities are appropriate to the material and pretty funny, but the language could be dialed down a bit with no loss of comic impact.

         Matt Hovde directs, which means the show moves with pace with energy.  Hovde is favored with an exceptionally versatile ensemble, each member carving out a distinct performing personality. They could all succeed in straight plays or musicals, especially Morehead with his good looks and acting range. But the pixie-ish Marchiano has a comic presence that would neatly fit into a role as the leading lady’s wisecracking best friend.

         Second City patrons not only have a particularly incisive revue and a sextet of young razor sharp performers to entertain them, Customers now can enjoy a new bistro that just opened next door to the e.t.c. theater. It’s called “1599” and it offers appetizers and light entrees as well as a consider beer and wine and mixed drink menu. The bistro wants to attract the before-and-after-theater crowd and it has the ambience to succeed. There were a number of groups of young women having drinks and nibbles when I was there. It seems like an ideal place for ladies to gather in a hassle-free environment for an after work or pre theater drink. It’s the kind of facility that has made play going in London such a civilized amenity. The atmosphere is casual and the staff is friendly and efficient. The brisket sliders are especially recommended.

              The show gets a rating of 3½  stars.

         ”The Red Line Runs Through It” is playing an open run at Second City e.t.c., 230 West North Avenue. Performances are Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets begin at $23. Call 312 664 4032 or visit www.SecondCity.com.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. May 2016

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Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?

At The Second City e.t.c.

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – The new revue at Second City e.t.c. follows the line that brevity is the soul of wit. The production consists of more than two dozen individual sketches and blackouts, nearly all of just a few seconds to a couple of minutes long. But that’s ample time to ruffle the feathers of touchy issues in modern life, with an agreeable percentage of the company’s material being politically incorrect.

         The 39th e.t.c. revue is called “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?” It is presented by an attractive young company of three men and three women, half of them newcomers to the e.t.c. stage. They collectively have their way with paranoia and stalking, racial attitudes, peanut allergies, sex workers imported from Ukraine, feminism, male bonding, pending relations with Cuba, social media, violence in the National Football League, the comic distresses of a first date, controversy over the location of the Star Wars Museum in Chicago, and a security drill in a kindergarten class.

         The production harnesses an impressive variety of presentation modes, including mime, rap, and possible police brutality toward blacks played as a silent movie comedy. Second City revues are not known for glitzy special effects but the e.t.c. production is filled with mod film, graphic, photographic visuals. The company has come a long way from those good old days when a revue’s physical production consisted of a couple of half doors at the rear of a bare stage and some wooden chairs as props. But times change. Second City has gone hi tech, and the dialogue, typically PG in shows of the distant past, now is flavored with the F--- word, usually to legitimate comic effect.                                

         Two of the ensemble members—Lisa Beasley and Rashawn Nadine Scott—are African American and they are used liberally in skits that take shots at the state of black/white relations in our society, especially from the black perspective. One of the show’s highlights is Beasley’s comic yet impassioned rap on the plight of Chicago public schools and black neighborhoods.

         Several of the ripest bits of the evening evoked today’s headlines, like the controversy over businesses who want to deny service to customers who conflict with their religious beliefs. The scene is a Christian bookstore and Beasley and Scott Morehead nail it. A poke at cell phones and their apps may be an easy target but it was still a funny sketch with Eddie Mujica playing a phone in desperation as it loses power.

The riskiest sketch of the night had all six performers somberly reflecting on where each of them was at the moment that 9/11 struck. The potential for bad taste or maudlin sentimentality is obvious, but the performers turned it into a genuinely comic piece that still ended on a thoughtful but not preachy note. Maybe the funniest sketch of the night had nothing satirical or topical about it. The playlet portrayed the awkward dilemma of an ancient Roman general who gets cold feet about leading his troops into battle.

         The production limited itself two only two improvisation bits, which was insufficient based on the hilarious results we enjoyed on opening night. Both involved cast members questioning a pair of couples sitting at ringside, with Carisa Barreca, the glamorous blonde member of the company, having a real field day with one young man who looked like he was under age for the cabaret by numerous years.

         The ensemble works smoothly together in various combinations. By the narrowest of margins my favorite performer was Tim Ryder, a lanky young man with an ingratiating smile and a delectable air of charming innocence that played well against the tartness of the material. But everyone carries his or her weight, with the females contributing some consisting professional, and humorous, vocalizing.          

         Technically this is an especially tricky show and director Anthony LeBlanc keeps the pace brisk and fluid, smoothly integrating Greg Mulvey’s video designs into the sketches with split second timing. The improve scenes even included on-the-spot photos of the ringsiders involved, with captions. Alex Kiner did nobly as music director, sound designer, and composer of the original music. Bob Knuth designed the set and Kyle Anderson the lighting plan.

         “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?” may assault some touchy subjects but it is not an angry or mean spirited show. The production doesn’t take huge risks, with maybe the exception of the 9/11 bit. But the show does keep its fingers skeptically on society’s pulse up to the minute and the audience greeted the immediacy of many of the bits with gleeful recognition. Overall, there were only few home runs in the parade of sketches, like of Beasley’s racial rap, but the company hit lots of doubles and triples, and I detected no strikeouts. This is a show worth repeat visits, if only to see if the ensemble catches lightning in the bottle in their improvs like they did on opening night.

         “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?” is playing an open run at Second City e.t.c. at Piper’s Alley, 230 West North Avenue. Performances are Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets begin at $23. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.SecondCity.com.

The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. April 2015

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