REVIEW: Swear Jar (The Annoyance Theatre)

 

Veteran sketch director can’t save “Swear Jar”

 
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Annoyance Theatre presents
 
Swear Jar
 
Directed by Mick Napier
Musical direction by
Lisa McQueen
Annoyance Theatre, 4830 N. Broadway (map)
through May 1st   (more info | tickets$15)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Annoyance Theatre‘s founder and artistic director Mick Napier has never once directed a sketch show for his own company in its 22-year history. It’s not that he doesn’t have experience in the medium. In fact, Napier’s a bit of a Chicago comedy legend, having directed more than 15 Second City revues and working with the likes of Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris.

mick-napier Swear Jar is Napier’s debut sketch revue for his own theatre. And although it definitely embraces the Annoyance aesthetic—which can be described as subversive, in-your-face, punk rock comedy—it never gains the momentum it needs to be a truly good sketch show.

It’s not that there aren’t some shining moments of hilarity. A scene where an alter boy (Chris Witaske) makes a lustful pass at a kind-hearted priest (Andrew Peyton) inverts the played out power dynamic with great success. Another scene (once again starring Witaske opposite straight man Peyton) depicts a desperate suit salesman quickly crumbling before an unsuspecting customer. Witaske’s solid acting skills and captivating stage presence make the demented sketch one of the best in the show.

The musical sketches, save for the closer which is a painfully unfunny and poorly executed piece about fast food, are big winners as well, thanks in part to musical director Lisa McQueen’s strong songwriting abilities. In particular, Vanessa Bayer’s rap about battling Leukemia is a perfect blend of catharsis and comedy.

Like a good stand-up act, a sketch show is only going to work if you can maintain momentum. One dip in the running order is acceptable, but when you have a string of sketches that just aren’t funny, then it’s difficult to keep the audience’s attention, even if the humor is meant to be somewhat shocking.

This was the case for many bits that may have started strong but then, with no real conclusion, just floundered and died on stage. A sketch about a man (Brian Wilson) who gets the bright idea to sit on the car’s gearshift plays out in full just as I describe it. A woman’s-only afternoon tea starts funny as the ladies passive aggressively take pot shots at each other’s failing relationships. It even gets to a second beat as one woman is berated by the hostess’s husband for spilling her drink on the floor. And just as you’re waiting for the final punch of the sketch, it awkwardly and abruptly ends.

showposter Swear Jar would be a much funnier show if it was consistent. There are just too many bumps throughout the revue. Many of the performers seem fairly green to the stage, having difficulty projecting their voices beyond the front two rows. (Witaske and Bayer, however, do stand out as consistently strong players.) The writing, too, is all over the place, often trying harder to shock than to elicit laughter. Although there is something to be said about shocking an audience, contemporary culture has raised the bar on what passes for taboo to a point that this sketch show just doesn’t hit, save for a sketch about a girl with a heavy flow.

With directing Swear Jar, Napier doesn’t abandon the Second City sketch format that inserts short “blackout” pieces between longer sketches, but he does tweak it. There is an outpouring of short, 30-second sketches near the end of the show, which helps bring up the energy at the end. But overall, the revue drags when the comedy just isn’t there, and at other times, the slew of short pieces can feel frantic and choppy. The show could also be trimmed down by 30 minutes. With an intermission, the 10 p.m. revue didn’t end until midnight.

Swear Jar just never hits its stride. Instead it limps across the finish line. There are some great moments and solid performances here and there, but the bulk of the revue feels directionless, which is a shame when you have the talent of Napier in the director’s chair.

 
Rating: ★★
 

RUN: Previews | March 13 and 20 | 10:00 PM | $10  //  Saturday | March 27 – May 1 | 10:00 PM | $15

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Review: Annoyance Theatre’s “Sodomites!”

Biblical madness paired with sardonic revelry makes for a musical of Biblical proportions

Christy Bonstell, Jim Fath, James Asmus, Mort Burke, Irene Marquette.  Photo credit: Sean Cusick

Right on the heels of Gay Pride Month, Annoyance Theatre puts up a raucous riff on the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. Naturally, any theater with a full service bar and a long history of shock-theater doesn’t need to go further than gay jokes or fart jokes. But Sodomites! director Sean Cusick and his partners in crime, writer James Asmus and lyricist Mike Descoteaux, have crafted a sly dissection of the usual right-wing fundamentalism towards the Old Testament and set it all to music to make it go down with jovial ease. In this production, witty lyrics, anachronisms, and fast-paced lines critique our modern day culture wars—bringing this high-energy, lowbrow show dangerously close to satire.

Maybe Sean Cusick’s past holds the key to this blend of bawdy theology. He majored in philosophy and political science at Tufts University, and then went on to improvisation out of a need for an unrestricted outlet. “I had no discipline for acting. But I learned a lot from Second City about saying something while going for laughs.” It was James Asmus who called with the idea for the musical. “James, Mike, and I came up with the skeleton for the show over a few lunches. Mike knew all the Biblical verses by heart, so there was no need to explain to him what we were going for.”

James Asmus, Mort Burke. Photo credit: Sean Cusick You can still get drunk and watch the show, but it’s almost better if you don’t so that you won’t miss all the cunning details. The archangels Michael and Gabriel are ordered by God to seek out “one good man” from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah or God will wreak destruction upon them. The trouble is that Michael and Gabriel are as jittery before God as overworked personal assistants to a fickle, spoiled CEO. While they are off on their mission, God will “bury some dinosaur bones to test peoples’ faith.” The angels describe the perils of their mission with “One Good Man.”

Upon landing in Sodom, they run into Lot, a raving, self-righteous homophobe who sees gay sex all around him. And he equates “gay sex” with everything, from bestiality to melon-ballers. “Our hero is as pure as his daughter’s labia majora,” sings the narrator. Isn’t that the truth, since Lot is more sexually obsessed than the deviants he condemns and one of daddy’s little girls seems rather eager to leave mom behind.

But bourgeois gay couples and liberal elites also get their come-uppance. A quick visit to Gomorrah reveals beautiful people so smug and fatuitous in their liberal haven, you long for them to be destroyed. Michael visits a gay couple who are both well meaning and self-absorbed. They take the angel for a mentally challenged homeless person until he downloads 1% of God’s consciousness into one of them. “You look like when we did coke,” his partner remarks as he comes out of it. Of course, it doesn’t help for them to learn that they will be destroyed for violating the laws of God that haven’t even been written yet. Even as Michael lets them preview an “advanced copy” of Leviticus, “Leviticus Rag” perfectly expresses their chagrin.

Irene Marquette, Christy Bonstell, Photo credit: Sean Cusick The highlight of the show occurs when God finally reveals himself, as a Morrissey character, singing, “This is God, Saying Sorry.” The true nature of the Old Testament God comes to light, as a capricious, arbitrary, and erratic personality; an awful power coupled to insecurity issues. Perhaps even the liberal religious may take offense, but the song is perfect piece for the production and explains a great deal about a god who “expects a lot.”

So, even once the angels have found one good man, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed anyway. The writers pull no punches in describing or commenting on the arbitrariness of that destruction: “Genocide is always someone else’s fault.” What more needs to be said about the human propensity to come up with any rationalization for the abuse of power, whether it be bombing cities or decimating populations?

The final act wherein Lot has sex with his daughters returns us to the ribaldry for which Annoyance is famous. It’s a telling moment when the angel Michael reassures Lot that, not to worry, the whole incident will be left out of the Koran. Nice to know that someone will do damage control, once the damage is all well and done.

Much praise goes to the well-coordinated cast, whose enthusiasm and energy are unflagging. Biblical madness should be paired sardonic revelry and earnest mania. It may be the only way for the human race to survive.

 

Rating: «««½

Sodomites!! A Musical of Biblical Proportions opens on June 19 during the Just For Laughs Festival and will show on Fridays at 8:00 PM through July 31. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the company’s website theannoyance.com, or by calling the box office: 773.561.HONK (4665). The Annoyance is located at 4830 N. Broadway, Chicago, Illinois 60640.

Cast list and bios after the jump

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