REVIEW: Batterymouth: It Burns

  
  

Slow-Form Spontaneity

  
  

Dave Urlakis and Zack Whittington of Batterymouth: It Burns

  
Batterymouth presents
  
Batterymouth: It Burns
  
Written by Dave Urlakis and Zack Whittington
Directed by
E.J. Scott
at Second City’s de Maat Theatre, Chicago (map)
through Feb 18  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Batterymouth’s new long-form improv show at Second City’s de Maat Theatre is definitely in the top percentile of the dozens—or is it hundreds—of improv shows going on around town. This accomplishment is somewhat diminished by the fact that the vast majority of improv shows remind me of someone dizzily flipping through television channels, occasionally landing on an episode of Family Guy. Still, Batterymouth’s calm and grounded work is a refreshing serving of intelligent spontaneous comedy.

Before I get too far into my review, a note on reviewing improv. Obviously, no two shows are identical. It’s the nature of the art. You make up some characters and scenarios only to have your masterpiece lost forever in the ether. What remain are the performers and the form. So although the particulars of the show I saw don’t have baring on future performances, the quality of the talent does. And that’s what I’m here to tell you about.

Batterymouth is Dave Urlakis and Zack Whittington. Urlakis is an ensemble member at ComedySportz Chicago, a short-form improv institution that requires lightening-speed wit. He’s also a writer and performer for Best Church of God, one of the most intelligent sketch groups in the city. Whittington is a member of the sketch comedy group Long Pork, which recently performed at the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.

The duo certainly has chemistry together, which is integral for a successful improv group. After all, how interesting would T.J. and Dave if their stage presence was akin to oil and water? Urlakis and Whittington share the focus of the scene, seamlessly giving and taking the lead. They are magnanimous improvisers who are willing to divert attention away from them for the benefit of the scene.

They’re also patient. Whereas many improv sets come off as a frantic barrage of randomness, theirs unfolds naturally and organically. The entire show I saw consisted of one 30-minute scene about a recently laid-off lawyer and his secretary. As is the Del Close method, the two slowly explored the many facets of their characters, creating unique discoveries that seemed to feel just as genuine to them as they did to us.

I also appreciated the fact that Batterymouth isn’t afraid to occasionally flirt with drama. There were tender moments during the show that arose from the characters’ shared feelings of loneliness. It’s this added layer that boosts a good improv scene to the level of greatness.

My only critique would have to be that after spending 30 minutes with the same characters in the same scene the audience gets a little fatigued. I wouldn’t mind escaping the original scenario for an intermission elsewhere. Perhaps we could see one of the protagonists in a different environment? Or maybe we could flash forward or backward in time?

Overall, Batterymouth: It Burns is an enjoyable way to spend your early evening. Additionally, the duo welcomes a different opening improv group each week (listed below). If you’re a fan of long form, especially that of the T.J. and Dave variety, check out this show.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Batterymouth: It Burns, directed by E.J. Scott, runs Fridays at 7:30pm through February 18 at Second City’s de Matt Theater, Piper’s Alley, 1616 N. Wells. Tickets are $10 for students and $12 for general admission, and can be ordered by calling (312) 337-3992 or by visiting secondcity.com, and are available at the deMaat Theatre’s box office.

 

Opening Improv Groups

Fri, 1/21/11 at 7:30PM with Honor Student Breakfast
Fri, 1/28/11 at 7:30PM with Electric Lunchbox
Fri, 2/04/11 at 7:30PM with Wildcard
Fri, 2/11/11 at 7:30PM with Tina with the Weather
Fri, 2/18/11 at 7:30PM with Long Pork

  
  

Theatre Building Chicago changes name – now Stage 773

stage-773-logo

THEATRE BUILDING CHICAGO is now STAGE 773   

Brian Posen, Artistic Director of STAGE 773 (formerly known as Lukaba Productions), has announced that the sale of the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont, was completed at the end of May, and Stage 773 is now the primary tenant of the 3-theatre venue.

“We are honored to be entrusted with the future of this building, which holds such an important place in the Chicago arts community,” said STAGE 773 board chair Laura Michaud.  “We look forward to continuing and building upon Theatre Building Chicago’s tradition of providing support as well as space for Chicago’s performing artists.” 

The company formerly known as Lukaba Productions also officially announced it has changed its name to STAGE 773.  “The name STAGE 773 better expresses our company’s mission to celebrate the richness, creativity, innovation and spirit of Chicago’s off-loop theatre movement,” explained Brian Posen. 

The company will remain under the creative direction of Posen, who also teaches at the Second City Training Center (Program Head) and Columbia College. Posen has an extensive career in Chicago theatre as an actor, director, teacher and producer.  He is also the creator of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, the world’s largest sketch comedy festival, which will be celebrating its 10th year in January 2011 at STAGE 773.


About STAGE 773       

STAGE 773 acts to embody the vibrant spirit of Chicago off-loop theatre by:

  • celebrating the creative process, supporting the work of actors, directors, writers, composers and designers;
  • nurturing the artist, offering material, technical, organizational and emotional support;
  • honoring the audience, presenting accessible, affordable, exceptional entertainment.

 

Map picture

Theatre Building Chicago changes hands

theatre-building-chicago

LUKABA PRODUCTIONS FINDS A HOME

Lukaba Productions announced today that it will be the primary tenant of the Theatre Building Chicago, at 1225 W. Belmont Ave.  Lukaba has committed to a long-term lease with 1225 West Belmont Avenue LLC, who this week signed a contract to purchase the building from Theatre Building Chicago.

Under the contract announced this week, Theatre Building Chicago will sell its property in Lakeview, containing three 148-seat theaters, to 1225 West Belmont Avenue LLC, according to Charles H. Jesser, manager of record for the entity. Jesser also stated that the purchaser intends to make substantial upgrades to the building. (Yeah!) The transaction is expected to close in May.

Lukaba executive producer Brian Posen stated, “We are excited about the opportunity to have our own space where we can collaborate with other artists and offer audiences accessible, affordable and exceptional entertainment.”

sketchfest-logo Lukaba Productions, under Posen’s leadership, has a long history of theatrical production in Chicago.  Lukaba’s flagship product is the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, the world’s largest such festival that has taken place at TBC each January since 2002.  In addition, Lukaba is the parent company of the Cupid Players, the musical sketch comedy troupe that lays claim to the title of longest-running sketch revue in iO Theater’s history.  Posen has also produced a number of theatrical productions.  Those presented at TBC include the Chicago premiere of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, Noises Off! and How the Other Half Loves.

“We have spent the last several years searching for a permanent home that can serve as a base for our own productions, as well as helping us fulfill our mission of serving and nurturing Chicago’s theatrical artists.  We will continue TBC’s tradition of offering Chicago’s off-Loop companies affordable performance space so that the building will continue to serve as an incubator for Chicago theatre,” said Lukaba board chair Laura Michaud.

See more updates on this story at Chris Jones’ blog.

Sketchfest comes to Chicago: do not miss it!

The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Storytown

by Ian Epstein

Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival:

  • Lasts only 8 days
  • erupts with nearly 150 performers
  • consists of nearly 100 troupes
  • is calling your name

sketchfest-logo“We’re creating comedy,” says Brian Posen, the founder and Executive Producer of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.  With a head full of curly hair, Posen wears a neatly trimmed beard, a spotless labcoat and a pair of white angel wings, swaying slightly.  He’s standing on a stage in a cloud of fog.  Black horn-rimmed glasses frame his face, giving him the distinguished air you’d expect from a mad, comedic scientist.  A fellow actor, also clad in a labcoat, holds up the machine emitting all this fog.  This is Bri-Ko, one of the sketch comedy troupes participating in the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.  It’s 4:30pm on Thursday, January 7th, and they’re putting the finishing tech touches on their show.  In three and a half hours the curtain rises simultaneously on three stages to kick off the 9th Annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, or  SketchFest for short.  And Bri-Ko is one of the troupes that Executive Producer and Founder Brian Posen himself will perform in. 

Sketch Comedy – a history course

Hundreds of years ago and late at night, a writer fumbling over a desk with a dim lamp couldn’t think up the right word for an elusive thought.  Blindly, the writer scratches down a word on the page — a word that is not English at all — that is, in fact, Dutch. 

That elusive idea that the writer wrestled with? Lost to history. It definitely wasn’t a perfect drawing or a final draft, “what the Dutch Painters call a schytz” or a “hasty piece.”  No, this was something else .  An idea too flighty for familiarity.  It needed to be lean and light like a single shriek of laughter.  The “first schetse of a comedy,” perhaps.  From its first uses in English, a sketch is something intimately connected with the person who created it.  It is practically incapable of life outside of that person.  And from its first instance, a sketch has always been about the ability to get across a lot of ideas using a combination of speed and variety – it’s a quick bit of ingenuity or an outline traced in midair. 

What is sketch comedy?

Is it improv?  In a word: no.  Sketch Comedy involves reams of paper full of words and tons of ideas put forward in these things that you might call scripts.  You’d be mistaken, though, since these scripts, animated by the writers who wrote them and appreciated by the audience that views them, become what they call sketchs

Sketches of what, though?  Of movies?  Sometimes.  A TV mini-series?  A full on farce à la Moliere with costumes?  A song cycle or an extended piece of silent, physical comedy?  Commedia dell’arte for the new decade?    A made for TV movie performed live with two people playing ten roles?   Are these sketches just blueprints for knock knock jokes?  Does each maybe contain some shard or kernel from the source of all knock knock jokes ever?

The sketches, Posen explains, differ as widely as the troupes that perform them.  He continues, adding that sketch is the comedic form that is all the rage in the comedy scene these days.  Talking quickly, he runs through history, stopping here and there to point out trends in American comedy with insight and nonchalance. The 80s were all about stand up, he observes, and the 90s saw the rise of improvisation as the ruling form well  into the recently closed out naughts, where the sketch takes off around the time as SketchFest’s 2001 inaugural year.

The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Bri-Ko Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Buffet Shark

SketchFest comes to Chicago

Back in 2001, Posen, working as a producer, booked a stage at Theatre Building Chicago to put up a musical by the Chicago writing duo Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day .  The musical was an ambitious production called Aztec Human Sacrifice.  But the bottom fell out and Posen was left with a reserved stage at Theatre Building Chicago.  There were no other takers for the stage and nothing was waiting in the wings.  So Posen hopped on the phone and sent emails to his sketch comedy friends and about a month later the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival met with huge success.  Posen possesses that rare, inspiring combination of an actor’s energy, a comedian’s wit, a teacher’s patience, and an off-hand eloquence that allows him to talk about the traditions of comedy and connect them to complex theories about how theater should work, theories that an academic might trace back to Brecht or far beyond. 

Over its elongating history (who knows what’s in store for next year’s 10 year anniversary…), there have been a variety of trends in what SketchFest emphasizes.  2010 marks an explosion of kid-centric sketch offerings for groups of kids and by groups of kids spilling across the stages by day.

But be sure not to go to a late night show expecting family-friendly content.  Posen warns that sketch, a theatrical form that draws its energy from aggression and hostility before turning it into satirical gold, is largely rated R or PG (depending upon the parent or the rating organization).

In a lot of ways, SketchFest resembles a professional conference — where comedy is the currency of choice and the CEOs appear in clown noses or costumes.  Posen and the SketchFest staff bring together a select panel of performance professionals (only half of the groups that apply make the cut) who gather to discuss and workshop the finer points of their craft.  And a huge part of sketch comedy’s beauty is that the craft is so self-effacing — the better its done, the harder you laugh.  You don’t marvel at the delivery of a particularly difficult line so much as you crumple to the floor crying hysterically.  The countless hours spent slaving over the placement of punchlines in a script or perfecting what is too often perceived as the innate mystery of comic timing fall by the wayside; comedy’s most audible byproduct isn’t applause, it’s laughter. 

Chicago Theater Blog Recommends

(Don’t be afraid to read about the groups or check out the schedule.  Take a look at the Kids friendly offerings!  And remember — they all passed the preliminary inspections so any group is a safe bet!)

Kanellis & Armstrong
1/8/10 @ 9pm
1/9/10 @ 9pm

Hard Left Productions
1/8/10 @ 10pm
1/9/10 @ 10pm

Bri-Ko 
1/8/10 @ 11pm
1/9/10 @ 2pm (kid friendly!)
1/16/10 @ 2pm (kid friendly!)

The Cupid Players
1/9/10 @8pm
1/16/10 @ 8pm

Animosity Pierre
1/15/10 @ 8pm
1/16/10 @ 9pm

In Yo Face
1/15/10 @ 8pm
1/16/10 @ 8pm

Rabbit Rabbit
1/15/10 @ 10pm
1/16/10 @ 10pm

BriTANick
1/15/10 @ 11pm
1/16/10 @ 11pm

The Backrow
1/16/10 @ 7pm

sketchfestpromo