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.
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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