REVIEW: The Book of Liz (Chemically Imbalanced Comedy)

Innovation triumphs over imitation

 

 

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Chemically Imbalanced Comedy presents
   
The Book of Liz
   
Written by Amy and David Sedaris
Directed by Angie McMahon
1420 W. Irving Park (map)
through December 18th |  tickets: $18  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Amy Sedaris is a nut. I’ve been following her career since her early days on Comedy Central’s surrealist sketch show “Exit 57” (directed by Annoyance Theatre founder Mick Napier). Unlike her female contemporaries Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who have both deservedly found success on network television, Sedaris has never learned, or perhaps wanted, to tone down her irreverent brand of humor and repackage it for the masses, as evidenced by the darkly hilarious Strangers With Candy. In short, she is a unique spirit that demands a cult following.

Book of Liz - Sarah Rose Graber That is why I was blown away by Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s remount of its production of The Book of Liz, a play penned by Sedaris and her equally talented brother, David Sedaris. Sarah Rose Graber fills in for the title character, Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a character originally portrayed by Sedaris herself, and brings an energy that is both congruent with the play’s wacky tone while wholly original. This is significant because I would expect Sedaris’ shadow to intimidate most actresses into paying homage, but not so with Graber.

The Book of Liz concerns a small community of Quaker-like Christians known as the Squeamish. The Squeamish are simple folk who do without modern-day amenities and instead spend their time praising God and making cheeseballs. Liz is the under-appreciated genius behind the cheeseballs, which serve as the community’s financial backbone. Her patience is tested when parishioner Brother Brightbee (Brian Kash) visits from a nearby community to learn the lucrative craft. It is then that Liz resolves to run away and experience the outside world.

While on the outside, Liz encounters a cast of colorful characters, including a Ukrainian couple that speaks with cockney accents and a colonial-themed restaurant staffed by recovering alcoholics. Meanwhile, back at the Squeamish community, Brother Brightbee becomes increasingly frustrated as he fails again and again to replicate the famous cheeseball recipe.

Graber deserves all the praise she can get for her wide-eyed portrayal of Liz. She is unwavering in her commitment to the character’s little tics, from her squeaky voice to her “Gosh darn” facial expressions. Equally worthy of praise is her supporting cast, including Kash, who did double duty by filling in for Bryan Beckwith, the actor slated to play restaurant manager Duncan. As Brother Brightbee, Kash’s hyperbolized passive aggression toward Liz makes for some tense comedy. Adam El-Sharkawi, too, does an outstanding job as Reverend Tollhouse, the Squeamish community’s no-nonsense leader. In one of the play’s only dramatic scenes, Liz confronts the Reverend about his workhorse ways. Here, Graber and El-Sharkawi forge a genuinely touching connection in the midst of the otherwise hair-brained comedy.

Angie McMahon’s direction is resourceful. Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s space is tight—incredibly tight. And yet she manages to swiftly transform the stage from a parish to a restaurant to a doctor’s office without letting the momentum of the play slow for a moment.

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s The Book of Liz stays true to the Sedaris spirit. Fortunately, this does not hamper the actors from taking risks and breathing new life into the play’s characters. If you are looking for a good laugh (and who isn’t these days), check out this production!

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Cast (*indicates returning cast members)

*Sarah Rose Graber…Liz
*Brian Kash…Brother Brightbee
*Nathan Petts…Donny/Visil
*Cynthia Shur…Cecily/Dr. Barb
*Adam El Sharkawi …Rev. Tollhouse
*Lina Bunte…Sister Buterworth
Laura Wilkinson…Oxanna
Eric Bays…Yvonne
Bryan Beckwith…Duncan
Directed by *Angie McMahon

  
  

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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: Second City’s “Taming of the Flu”

The Second City at 50: Good for what ails you

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The Second City presents

Taming of the Flu

Written and performed by Lauren Ash, Shelly Gossman, Anthony LeBlanc, Brad Morris, Andy St. Clair and Emily Wilson
Directed by Mick Napier
Open run (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

They may be 50 years old, but The Second City can still bring up some healthy laughs.

TAMING_OF_THE_FLU_PR_008Most of us won’t get to go to The Second City’s big 50th anniversary celebration with its famous alumni this weekend — many events are sold out — but the troupe’s latter-day regulars do their predecessors proud with their anniversary mainstage revue, Taming of the Flu.

This is the kind of infectious comedy that made The Second City famous: Fast-paced, creative, topical, hilarious.

There are gags about swine flu*, of course, and health-care reform, with some needle-sharp jabs at insurance companies and politicians of all stripes. Some subtly and not-so-subtly humorous routines point up racial issues, the economic meltdown, war, terrorism and the other ills of our time.

Modern life gets its jibes, from the guy who’s addicted to his iPhone to the football player who taunts his opponents with Harry Potterisms to lesbian bachelorettes. In an anniversary mood, they look back over 50 years, comparing teenagers from 1959, ’79 and revisiting a 1950s bomb shelter.

Best of all are the Chicago-centric gags. Maybe it’s a return to The Second City’s roots or maybe it’s just that during this chilly and cash-strapped season they figure they don’t have to play to the tourists, but some of the best bits in this revue aim straight at the home crowd with nary any translation — such as a poignant paean to Chicago winters, lawn chairs and all. Chicago cops. Red-light cameras. The Olympics. Indiana casinos. Aldermanic candidates. A sidesplitting sketch covers local cabbies’ recent call for fare hikes.

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As with all revues, some sketches are funnier than others, but the jokes roll out nonstop, fast as sneezes. The six ensemble members keep ’em coming with  feverish timing, dead-on expression and keen comic gestalt.

Compared to Tamiflu, laughter may not be the best medicine, but I defy anyone to leave this show not feeling better than when he went in. If it doesn’t cure what ails you,* at least you’ll forget your suffering for a while.

Rating: ★★★★

TAMING_OF_THE_FLU_PR_006Notes: The Second City ticket prices are due to rise Jan. 1 to a minimum of $22 for general-admission seats and up to $46 for a new class of "premium" seats. Parking in the Piper’s Alley garage is $1 off with validation at the box office.

* Chicago Theater Blog does not advocate going to the theater while suffering with H1N1 flu or any other contagious disease. Fortunately, this show is in open run. Please stay home until after you have completely recovered, if only for the sake of any critics who may be in the audience. Gesundheit.