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.

        

                                                Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

         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.

                                    

                                             Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

         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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Apes of Wrath

At The Second City e.t.c.

By Dan Zeff

Chicago –The new Second City e.t.c. revue calls itself “Apes of Wrath.” There are no references to apes in the show, wrathful or otherwise, but the curious name doesn’t interfere with the show’s lofty entertainment values. This is one of the brightest and nimblest of the e.t.c’s 38 revues, a fetching mix of fresh material and superior ensemble work.

         The e.t.c revues have traditionally been a little more edgy and free swinging than the presentations by the more experienced Mainstage company next door. The performers generally have been younger, just cutting their teeth on the inimitable Second City cabaret style. The cast of “Apes of Wrath” consists of three newcomers, all male, and three returnees, all female. It’s fair to say that this group pretty much has pulled even with the Mainstage troupe, which is no knock on the Mainstage but a recognition that the e.t.c. people have risen to their plateau of accomplishment.

         Recent  Mainstage and e.t.c. productions have drifted away from the satirical material that built the Second City empire. Gone are the days when the revues were peppered with barbs aimed at Chicago politics, the national political scene, touchy social issues, and the deplorable and unimproving state of the Cubs. Rahm Emanuel doesn’t get a mention in “Apes of Wrath” and if there was a passing mention of Barak Obama, I missed it. This is not an angry, agenda laden show but it’s one of the funniest in recent memory. The company can’t be criticized for avoiding hot button social commentary. It just seeks its material elsewhere, and with gratifying results, one or two stumbling skits notwithstanding.

                          

         The current revue has more extensive production values than most past shows in its lighting effects and music. No longer do audiences see barebones revues with just a couple of half doors at the rear of the stage and a few wooden chairs as the scenic effects. The current results provide a more fully theatrical experience for the audience, though the performers and their material still rule.

         The show does start on a relevant note, lampooning the trivializing of news on the Internet, an easy target to be sure. But mostly the company serves up offbeat examinations of offbeat topics. There is a bit about purity balls, designed to celebrate the commitment of young people to keeping themselves virginized until marriage, a concept that drifts into incestuous waters. There is a marvelous ensemble scene in which a young woman (Carisa Barreca) enters the magical kingdom of a men’s bathroom, dancing and miming her reactions to the accompaniment of salty comments tossed out by her colleagues. Eddie Mujica and Brooke Breit deliver a hilarious two-hander about a woman trying to develop a romantic relationship with her robot servant. Breit is a hoot with a monologue by a lower middle class high school graduate philosophizing about her prep days, aided by input solicited from ringside patrons. After a slow start, a monologue by Asher Perlman gets off some funny and weird riffs on bee keeping.

         Mujica, a real star in the making, has a splendid scene as a Hispanic man studying for his citizenship test with the assistance of the audience, even engaging a spectator in Spanish that may have been unintelligible to most of the patrons but was still uproarious. Tim Ryder and Punam Patel (who shows off to much better advantage in this revue than her previous appearance) don leotards to perform an interpretive dance before an invisible audience at a Louisiana prison.

         The only attempt at barbed satire comes from Tim Ryder, accompanying himself on the guitar as he sings a ballad that enumerates all the things Christianity must apologize for through its history. The song, in spite of its mellow style, goes after conservative Christianity and Roman Catholicism with razor sharp lyrics to the delight of the audience, which traditionally has leaned heavily toward appreciating anti-establishment humor.                             

         This is one of the most musical of recent e.t.c. revues, much of the material presented in song form with witty and clever lyrics. While there is no overarching theme to the evening, lots of material involves outer space and the cosmos, affirming that while we are important as individuals we remain insignificant in the big intergalactic picture, which about covers the subject.

         There was only one dud in the program, an ensemble piece about employees gathering in fear that one of them has been earmarked to be fired. The one-joke skit is overwrought to the point where a frantic Brooke Breit seemed to be losing her mind.

         Jen Ellison’s directing puts the ensemble through its paces briskly and glitch free. This is a superbly rehearsed production, moving from sketch to sketch and blackout to blackout in flawless transition. There isn’t much improvisation, but what there is succeeds handsomely, or at least it did on press night, a tribute to the cast’s versatility and quick thinking. Alex Kliner provides the musical direction, original music, and sound design, giving the show an almost symphonic aural effect at times. We have come a long way from the single piano accompaniment of Second City in its early days.

         The compatibility of the cast, half of them performing on the e.t.c. stage for the first time, is wondrous. It’s too early to predict who is marked for future stardom, but I would nominate Mujica, Barreca, and Breit as likely possibilities, but they are all top flight as comedians, comic actors, and singers (and obviously as writers, having collectively created the entire show). Being an old-time Second City fan, I would have preferred more topical humor, but audiences should be delighted to accept whatever comic pleasures this super talented company has on offer.                                     

         “Apes of Wrath” is playing an open run at the Second City e.t.c. cabaret theater, 230 West North Avenue. Performances are Tuesday (August 6-13), Wednesday (July 9-August 13), and 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. June 2014

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