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: Rush Limbaugh! The Musical (Second City)

It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Pundit Sings

 RUSH- LtoR- Kevin Sciretta, Karla Beard, Colleen Murray, Mar

Second City e.t.c. presents

Rush Limbaugh! The Musical

book by Ed Furman
music/lyrics by
TJ Shanoff
directed by
Matt Hovde
through March 24th (more info)

review by Keith Ecker

RUSH- LtoR- Colleen Murray, MArk Sutton, Cayne Collier, Bump There’s an irony in juxtaposing Rush—the arena rock trio of Canadians who helped forge the musical genre known as progressive rock—with Rush Limbaugh—the overzealous, portly megalomaniac who helped forge the political movement known as neo-conservatism. This is the kind of sharp wit and pop-culture referencing that Second City’s newest play, Rush Limbaugh! The Musical, relies upon to penetrate through the mess that is today’s political landscape.

And just what is the topography of this landscape? Politicians and pundits have made careers out of capitalizing on fear, hate and anger. Religion is in the pocket of the self-proclaimed righteous who corrupt and manipulate their follower’s belief systems for their own gain. The two-party system gives voters a choice of crap and diet crap. All these are themes found in Rush Limbaugh, which at its greatest moments steps out from behind its satirical shield to reveal a genuinely pissed-off group of performers.

The musical focuses on the rise of Rush Limbaugh (Mark Sutton), from his humble beginnings as a rich hippie-hating nitwit in the 1960s to the mouthpiece for the evangelical Christian conservative movement.

RUSH-LtoR- Karla Beard, Mark SuttonOur tour guide on this journey is a woman with a Caribbean accent named Shasta (Karla L. Beard). She punctuates the play with parodies of Rush songs about Rush Limbaugh. While Rush is still young and floundering, Reverend Rightwing (Cayne Collier) steps in to help give the budding radio star a boost. The two forge a mutually beneficial relationship where Rush will use his own brand of Christian lunacy to win new converts to his radio show. Soon Rush becomes a voice to be reckoned with, successfully helping take down Bill Clinton. It is then that he’s on top of the world, ushering in a new Republican world order with the election of George W. Bush.

Donald Rumsfeld (also played by Collier) and Karl Rove (Bumper Carroll) make appearances as a bumbling Abbott and Costello duo while evil Anne Coulter (Colleen Murray) lurks in the shadows. There’s also a subplot involving Hillary Clinton (Murray) and Barney Frank (Kevin Sciretta), who serve as the weak, impotent voice of the left.

The acting is superb. Mark Sutton can muster up a vicious growl and a penetrating scowl on command. When he performs the on-air scenes in the makeshift radio booth, he really captures the despicable glee that the real Rush infuses into his racist diatribes, such as “How do you starve a black man? You hide his food stamps under his work boots.” But despite how wicked Sutton’s Rush might come off, you can’t resist watching him.

The supporting cast is rock solid. Beard has a voice on her that shines on the parody of the Dreamgirls tune “And I’m Telling You,” in which her character tells Rush that she’ll stay by his side even after the neo-conservative movement begins to lose steam. Murray successfully pulls off double duty as the weasely Anne Coulter and the manic Hillary Clinton, while Sciretta does a dead-on Barney Frank impression.

Overall, the writing (care of Ed Furman who also wrote Rod Blagojevich Superstar!) is strong. However, there are some terrible groaners that fall flat near the top of the play. The biggest flaw, though, are the Barney Frank lines, which amount to boring and trite homophobic comedy. It was strange to see these childish references to gay sex in a show that otherwise believed in the intelligence of the audience.

RUSH-LtoR- Cayne Collier, Mark Sutton, Collen Murray, Bumper RUSH-LtoR- Kevin Sciretta, Mark Sutton, Colleen Murray
RUSH- LtoR- Cayne Collier, Kevin Sciretta, Bumper Carroll, M RUSH- LtoR- Karla Beard, Kevin Sciretta, Colleen Murray, Mar

TJ Shanoff, who also worked on Rod Blagojevich Superstar!, wrote the music and lyrics, which are outstanding. From the Democrats shouting in punk rock fashion about how “fucked” their party is to Rush singing the praises of Oxycontin, the songs are deeply funny and veer away from obvious rhyme schemes that would normally spoil the joke.

Rush Limbaugh! The Musical is a political treatise told through musical comedy. Despite some base material that would be better left out of the play, you’ll find a lot of smart jokes to laugh at…unless you’re a Republican, in which case you might have been better off seeing the Rod Blagojevich production.

Rating: ★★★

Rush Limbaugh! The Musical at The Second City e.t.c. (1608 North Wells in Piper’s Alley, Chicago). previews Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 2:00pm, opening on Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 8:30pm and will run Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm until March 24, 2010 at The Second City e.t.c.

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