REVIEW: What’s to Fear? (Time of Your Life Players)

Music to soothe the tough realities of aging

 

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The Time of Your Life Players present
   
What’s To Fear?
   
Written and Directed by Avrum Krause
Music/Lyrics by Bryan Dunn
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through November 6  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The Time of Your Life Players, who have just opened What’s To Fear? at the Greenhouse Theater Center, were founded to create musical comedies that speak to the experience and perspective of the elderly, as well as utilize the musical talents of performers ranging 50 to 70 years of age. As any afternoon at their latest production will reveal, these seniors are no slouches at generating fun, communal feeling while delicately addressing the challenges of growing older.

First of all, the band is tight. Music makes the show and Musical Director Julie B. Nichols has honed a cohesive ensemble that could give some paid professionals a run for their money. After-show discussion revealed the collaborative process that the players go through in the creation of each musical. The result is an obvious atmosphere of conviviality and gentle fun, as well as top-notch performances.

whats to fear Written and directed by Artistic Director Avrum Krause, with Bryan Dunn handling music and lyrics, What’s To Fear? explores the personal journey of a man who enters the golden years of his retirement only to have them rudely interrupted. Joe (Larry Hazard) is asked what he will do with his retirement time–“Clean the shed . . . read the Great Books in bed . . . pursue photography, study oceanography.” A world of choices, many that he has put off for years, seem to open before him. Unfortunately, prostate cancer has other ideas, and soon Joe must contend with his fears, the loss of control in his life, and the indignities of his new medical reality.

The production handles its heavy themes with a consciously light touch. Krause and Dunn never forget to bring humor into the scenario, balancing bad news with clever lyrics, whether its facing a ready-to-cut doctor, a male nurse who will show you how to clean your catheter, or contending with those romance and incontinent issues after the operation. In a creative dream depiction of Joe’s fears, Cancer (Mary Gault, also playing Joe’s wife, Ann) comes to Joe dressed as a woman in a black veil. It’s death as both danger and seduction set to a Latin beat.

The average Chicago theatergoer might find Krause and Dunn’s handling of prostate cancer just a little too light. But Krause has gone through this experience himself and knows the value of leavening harsh experience with equal parts philosophy and good humor. Besides, The Time of Your Life Players not only perform in general theater venues, but also take the show on the road to retirement communities, senior living facilities, religious institutions—anywhere they can find their senior audience. Their lead song says it all: “Growing Old is Not for Wimps” and don’t they all know it deeply, one player having survived cancer three times.

What’s To Fear? is that bit of sugar to make the hard times go by easier. What is beautiful about Krause and company is that they establish, through their music, an experience of community against what can be the lonely journey of facing chronic illness and mortality. Music binds their show from beginning to end. If Joe comes out of his ordeal with a deeper appreciation for life, that same music may help us to appreciate the trials and tribulations of growing old. We will be there too, someday.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
    

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REVIEW: Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies (Second City)

Spoiler Alert: It’s Good.

 

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Second City presents
  
Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies
   
directed by Matt Hovde
at
Second City, 1616 N. Wells (map)
through October 31st  |  tickets: $22-$27   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When I see a Second City revue, I watch it through two different lenses.

The first is the comedian. I’m a former Second City student, and I’ve done my share of stand-up, sketch and improv comedy around the city. So I can see the gears in motion as the actors are on stage. I know what reads as hokey, and I can spot a pot shot. But I can also identify what improv guru Del Close termed “truth in comedy,” that is the genuineness behind the joke.

SPOILER_ALERT_PR_003_Knuth The other filter is the audience member. There’s nothing less funny than deconstructing a joke, so I have to allow myself to sit back, pull the stick from out of my butt and enjoy the show. Besides, Second City gets a wide spectrum of attendees, from talent scouts looking for the next star to Schaumburgers.

Too hokey and you’ll trip my comedian sensor. Too self-aware and you’ll trip my audience sensor. Fortunately, Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies strikes a near perfect harmony.

At the show’s opening, a red button sits on stage. A push from a brave audience member gets things going. We witness a human machine and are told through voice over that at the end of the show everybody dies. What ensues is a well-staged and masterfully executed montage of brief scenes depicting actions and consequences that result in various people’s deaths.

We then go into sketch mode. It’s a father/son scene. The son (the expressive Tim Robinson) is getting cold feet at his wedding. His dad (Tim Mason) attempts to convince him of the wonders of marriage, specifically the benefit of being able to use your wife’s brain to remember things you can’t. The sketch relies a little too much on stereotypical representations of Neanderthal men, but it has its moments.

Next there’s an ensemble song about people who skim the news, illustrating that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Later, there’s a cute bit about a matching sweatpants-wearing couple (Robinson and Shelly Gossman) who are an embarrassment to their Michael Jackson-loving daughter (Emily Wilson).

The best sketch of the bunch is a bit where one employee (Robinson) hems and haws when breaking the bad news that his co-worker (Gossman) is being laid off. The sketch works because it’s simple—just two talking heads—that are sharing a real genuine connection. Also, Robinson’s antics and inflections are so hilarious that he even cracks himself up.

 

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Second City sketch revues by their nature must be fast-paced. The moment the energy drops in the room, you risk losing your audience. Director Matt Hovde manages to keep the show flowing even in scenes that stew a bit more, such as the heavier sketch about a woman (Grossman) who comes to terms with being an asshole after berating a man (Mason) who just lost his son.

The ensemble works well together, and there certainly are some standouts. It’s no surprise that Gossman was recently tapped to head East and write for “Saturday Night Live”. I wouldn’t be surprised if Robinson is on deck.

The one major criticism I have for the show is its antiquated reliance on racial jokes. Nearly every sketch with Edgar Blackmon (who was filling in for cast regular Sam Richardson) relied in part on the fact that he is black. True, nobody is colorblind when it comes to race. It’s an important and unavoidable element of our society. But when you beat it into the ground with every sketch with a black actor, you start feeling a bit uneasy—especially when the audience is almost entirely white.

Overall, whether you come from the entertainment industry or from Indiana, you’ll walk away laughing from Spoiler Alert.

    
    
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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