Review: Chicago One-Minute Play Festival (Victory Gardens)

  
  

OMPF - One Minute Play Festival - Victory Gardens - banner

 

New Festival Showcases Short Works by Local Artists, Sampler-style

 

by Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

This May 15-16, Victory Gardens premiered Chicago’s first One-Minute Play Festival (OMPF), a benefit event that featured bite-sized works by an eclectic mix of prominent and upcoming local theater artists. Creator and “curator” Dominic D’Andrea originally debuted the series in New York in 2007, where it has since grown to San Francisco and Los Angeles . For its first ever stop in the Midwest, considering the event’s magnitude–50 playwrights, 10 directors, and nearly 60 actors–this year’s showcase demonstrated promising potential for an exciting annual Chicago theater institution.

That is, if it finds a stronger footing. Micro-plays are nothing new, especially in the Windy City, long-time home to the Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light and Second City; one set the bar for two-minute plays, and the other made one-joke flash bits a sketch trademark. D’Andrea and producer Will Rogers’ OMPF also rides off the larger 10-minute play trend. Their efforts to boil down theater even further, though, prove to be fruitful–sometimes even enlightening. Below is a list of the night’s highlights.

Paper Airplane, Aaron Carter  

     
   The finest piece in the festival. A young boy expresses his anguish over his father’s looming death while tossing folded paper planes across the stage. His ability to speak is limited to the papers’ flight, leaving him choked and frustrated with each audible crash landing. In less than a minute, Carter encapsulates the panic of grief, and animates the cruel handicap children endure to express pain. Those planes approached visual poetry.

Two Vegans, Robert Tenges

     
   A couple engaged in love making–some of it hilariously acrobatic–get their kink on by dirty-talking their favorite (or to cool things off, least favorite: (“raw kale…raw kale!”) foods. At first, it’s funny nonsense. Then, after you uncomfortably internalize your own link between taste/sexual satisfaction, it’s hysterical.

A Play, Kristoffer Diaz

     
   You’re the hero in this monologue. The audience member to your right is the protagonist. Your left, the antagonist. Diaz’s simple, straight-forward instructions don’t feel like a gimmick. His inconclusive end ponders some sophisticated ideas about the broader implications of storytelling, ones that resonate long after the play’s 60 seconds are up.

The Last Walk, Lisa Dillman

     
   Sad pets are an easy go-to for emotional impact…but that doesn’t make using them any less effective. A dog reminisces about the good days with her very recently deceased owner. Confused, she brushes up against his dead body for affection…and if you don’t cry a little at the thought of that, then you’re a monster. Only a few high-pitched “aw’s” were heard in the house during an otherwise hushed fade-to-black.

Inequity, Jake Minton

     
   Penis envy comes early for two little boys (played by full-grown adults, of course) in a school bathroom: One stands proud, pants down and bare-butted at a urinal, while the other sits devastated, hiding his…well, you know. Minton makes a nice little joke about men’s biggest insecurity.

Haiku Fight, Caitlin Montanye Parrish

     
   A couple hashes out an argument by having a refereed 8 Mile-style slam, with Japanese poetry filling in for hip-hop. It’s a simple, wonderfully clever juxtaposition of the writing form’s serenity versus the needling aggravation of a relationship fight.

This Just In, Stephen Louis Grush

     
  Liberal sensibilities about prejudice get turned over on their heads when one easily dismissible stereotype gets paired with one that’s equally unfair, but–for many viewers–may hit a little closer to home. Those might sound like the makings for a didactic issues play. With the right amounts of humor and levity here, they aren’t.

Bag Thief, Laura Jacqmin

     
   A mix-up at an airport luggage carousel leads to suspicion and accusations. Jacqmin doesn’t quite know how to end her play–what she settles for lets the air out of its balloon and betrays her otherwise solid work. Up until the final seconds, though, it’s fun stuff watching two men calmly navigate each other’s logic and contemplate one another’s mind games.

Blackout, Chisa Hutchinson

      
   As the name suggests, Hutchinson’s play takes place with the house and stage lights off. Her monologue discusses nyctophobia (fear of darkness) in friendly, clinical terms. Once she starts in about the ghastly things you could be imagining, it’s hard not to nervously giggle and realize you’re an adult who’s once again–briefly–afraid of the dark.

In Not Our Finest Hour, Andrew Hinderaker

     
   You can spot a gag coming within the first few seconds of this context-free comedy. A line of actors take a swig from a water bottle and pass it on. Anticipation builds; titters slip. The fact that the punch line is exactly what you’d expect compounds the simple humor in this satisfying, straightforward piece.

Wisconsin, Andrew Hinderaker 

     
   Anyone who’s experienced the unique isolation of a rural Midwest winter can attest to the truth and melancholy spoken in this eloquent monologue. A young man describes a blackened hand rising out of the snow. Hinderaker’s vivid image is striking on conflicting levels–it’s unsettling, somber, and in its own way, serene.

Free, Zayd Dohrn

     
   A United States Marine quietly bemoans the chaos of modern war and rejects America’s authoritative façade. His speech is upsetting for all the obvious reasons, and for some less common: notably, the futility of humanitarian efforts and the false hope instilled by the military’s hierarchy.

A Short Story, Emily Schwartz 

     
   A narrator gives up on his own story, much to the protagonist’s chagrin. Schwartz’s non-story leaves the nameless hero waiting and frustrated as the nonchalant storyteller signs off on her would-be adventure. Smart, funny metatheater.

Love Play for Two Chairs, Seth Bockley 

     
   When you think about chairs having sex (though in any other context, why would you?) the word “whimsical” probably doesn’t come to mind. And yet, like an x-rated Fantasia, Bockley and director Jeffrey Stanton achieve just that. Annoyed by the noise of his enchanted furniture getting it on, an apartment owner sets out to end his two chairs’ tryst. His solution is delightfully absurd–the fact that it’s irresistibly adorable makes matters even stranger.

Unsolicited Advice for Next Year’s Fest

Now that the One-Minute Play Festival has taken its first entertaining, successful baby steps in Chicago, here’s what we at we’d would like to see from the show in its future incarnations…

A Greater Assortment of Styles:

Only a few plays in 2011 were noteworthy for really bucking traditional conventions. The message in Gloria Bond Clunie’s Falling about resilience in the face of natural disasters, for instance, wasn’t particularly moving or inspired, but her play stood out from its peers for its striking use of projections and puppetry. That left us with a question: How can the other works of 50 unique artists have looked so homogeneous? Talking animals, inner-monologues, contentless scenes and gripes about public transit bore the brunt of too many shows. No movement pieces? No one-minute musicals? Festival organizers take pride in the lack of dictated thematic guidelines for the playwrights (as they should). Still, there has to be a way to commission a more diverse body of work.

Super-titles:

Many of the short plays benefited from having the names of the shows known; some even took on new light. Dimmed houselights and tiny program font made seeing them impractical–unless you were really straining, you had to do without. An inexpensive or creative way to integrate the show names could further enrich the work.

Clear Intent Behind Curation:

Was there or was there not an intended arc to the evening? We couldn’t tell. Directors took on about 10 plays each, and their pieces were presented together in ten unique “clumps.” The order that clumps were presented in and the plays within them, though, did not have an obvious flow. Perhaps one wasn’t intended–regardless, having one might keep the night as a whole engaging.


The Chicago One-Minute Play Festival is produced as a benefit for Victory Gardens Fresh Squeezed, their alternative programming and audience engagement initiative. With a shared mission, both Fresh Squeezed and the festival aim to represent a wide and diverse range of playwrights, actors, and directors working in the great city of Chicago.

Reviewers: Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

     
     

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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

  
  

30-Hour Improv Marathon to benefit Child Literacy program

Playground Theater - 30-hour Improv marathon

The Playground Improv Marathon:

30 Hours of Comedy Benefiting Child Literacy

 

“9 Actors. 30 Hours. No Script. No Sleep. No Sanity.”

When: 6 p.m. Friday, September 10 – Midnight Saturday, September 11
Where: The Playground Theater, 3209 N. Halsted St.
Cost: $5-$10 per hour-long show, $25 for a full 30-hour pass
Contact: Dave Maher (daphima@gmail.com, 773-706-5890)

On September 10-11 at The Playground Theater, local improv troupe K.C. Redheart will perform 30 straight hours of comedy as part of the inaugural Playground Improv Marathon, a charity event benefiting the Illinois Coalition of Reach Out and Read and the Playground Theater.

The nine members of K.C. Redheart will test their wits, endurance, and sanity as the core group of “Marathoners,” going without sleep while performing for the Marathon’s entire 30 hours. Additionally, each hour will mark the start of a new show, as the Marathoners welcome guests from around the city to improvise with them, including performers from Second City, ComedySportz, the Annoyance Theatre, iO, and K.C. Redheart’s home, the Playground Theater.

With the help of so many different performers, the Playground Improv Marathon will showcase the diversity and vitality of Chicago’s improv scene. There will be short-form games a la “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” experimental and narrative long-form shows, family-friendly shows during the day, and anything-goes sets during the late-night hours. As an added bonus, the audience will witness the Marathoners’ transformation from well-adjusted adults to sleep-deprived comedy nutjobs by the end of it all. And most importantly, all of the proceeds go to a great cause.

The Playground Improv Marathon begins Friday evening, September 10, at 6 p.m. and ends Saturday night, September 11, at midnight. Tickets are available at the door, and prices are as follows: $5 for matinee shows, $10 for prime-time shows, and $25 for passes to the entire Marathon. Tickets to the Marathon include entry in a raffle to win prizes donated by local businesses, with drawings held every hour. Extra raffle tickets will be available for purchase.

kcredheart1 - marathon

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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: Glitter in the Gutter (Annoyance Theatre)

Filthy. Gorgeous. A bit of a Drag.

glitter-gutter photo: Zach Dodson

Annoyance Theatre presents:

Glitter in the Gutter

**The first and only live Drag Queen Sitcom**

written and directed by Kellen Alexander
through March 11 (more info)

By Keith Ecker

Who among us has not pondered the secret lives of drag queens? When the lights at the cabaret fade and the bar lets its regulars loose upon the night, where does the entertainment go? And what of the less successful divas, those that harbor Ru Paul dreams while clunking around in chintzy platform heels?

Glitter in the Gutter, a new play produced by Annoyance Productions and directed and written by Kellen Alexander, tells this story. Or to be more precise, it tells the story of two particular drag queens who are tragically trashy, down on their luck and caught on the cusp of eviction.

glitter-poster The play opens on the shared apartment of Pepper LaRoo (Seth Dodson) and Velveeta Fitzgerald (Wes Perry). Pepper, slender, graceful and nursing a throbbing head, is the Patsy to Velveeta’s somewhat more grounded Edina (see AbFab). The headache interferes with Pepper’s memory of the night prior, but she does recall meeting a man whose number she stored in her phone.

Enter Beverly Poon (Sarah Fineout), a rival performer with a voice that sounds like she’s gargling gravel. It is through her that Pepper discovers the man she met the night before was none other than Vinnie Cancer (Ben Kass), a famous record producer. Of course, this sends Pepper and Velveeta into a tizzy. They decide to invite Vinnie over for a date with the ulterior motive of landing a record contract.

When Vinnie stops by, he hands Pepper a slip of paper to fulfill her wish. Wanting a piece of the fame pie, Velveeta attempts to woo Vinnie to sign her as well. Caring more for image than talent, Vinnie lets Velveeta down hard. Little does Vinnie know that his newfound flame can move her mouth to music but is completely tone deaf.

Scorned, Velveeta runs away from home. She befriends a bag lady (Rachel Reed) in the alley out back and settles down for a life of domesticity and Dumpsters.

The play is the kind of over-the-top, absurdist comedy reminiscent of Charles Busch or John Waters . It’s campy, it’s crass and it’s unapologetically gay. But wash off the rouge and the eye shadow, and the play’s flaws become more apparent.

Although Alexander is obviously talented—he, along with Dodson, are part of the phenomenal improv group 1, 2, 3, Fag! — he seems overwhelmed with managing writing and directing duties. Likely unable to give both adequate attention, the writing and the pacing of the play suffer from a lack of concision.

Jokes that would otherwise kill fall flat when the punch line gets lost in a tangle of words. Also, too often too much is said that could easily have been accomplished with action. This slows down the pacing of the overall play, making the first act in particular feel like a drag.

It is in the subtleties that Alexander excels. One of the funniest parts of the play is when Officer Rick Pony (Alex Moffat) makes his entrance wearing roller shoes. No dialogue needed. The same goes with the inclusion of a window that is operated off stage by a pulley. It’s a simple and cheesy stage piece that serves a purpose and is used to great comedic effect.

Dodson and Perry are both talented actors. Dodson’s delivery and soft-spokenness, his agile dance moves and his comedic timing make him an attention magnet. Perry, who sounds an awful lot like Mrs. Garrett from the Facts of Life, has a strong voice and a commanding presence as well.

I have to give special recognition to Reed, whose deadpan portrayal of an off-kilter homeless woman is a scene-stealer. She also is fortunate to have the best dialogue in the entire play.

If Glitter in the Gutter aspires to be in the same ranks as other campy classics, it misses its mark. But it’s an entertaining piece none-the-less that is sure to please fans of kitsch and drag.

Rating: ★★½

Related article: Timeout Chicago’s Taking Out The Trash

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REVIEW: Second City’s “Taming of the Flu”

The Second City at 50: Good for what ails you

 TAMING_OF_THE_FLU_PR_001

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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TAMING_OF_THE_FLU_PR_007 TAMING_OF_THE_FLU_PR_002

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.

Blago donates his over-sized hairbrush to Second City show

Blagoweb

 

From Chicago Trubune writer Chris Jones’ excellent theater blog:

“Convinced that the legendary comedy theater’s representation of the infamous implement used to tame the indicted former Illinois Gov’s famous coif was inadequately sized, the showbiz-loving Blagojevich has sent along the actual brush for use as an historic artifact in the show, Rod Blagojevich Superstar, ongoing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.”

The show is being produced by Second City.

Read more here.

picture courtesy of Chicago Tribune.