REVIEW: Bri-Ko: All Silent. All Funny (Stage 773)

  
  

A barrel of laughs and fun for everyone – don’t miss it!

  
  

tim Soszka, Brian Posen, Brian Peterlin in Bri-Ko at Stage 773 Chicago

   
Stage 773 presents
   
Bri-Ko: All Silent. All Funny
   
Written/directed by the Ensemble
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Jan 2  |  tickets: $12-$18   | more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Whenever I am in the Stage 773, (a.k.a. Theatre Building) area, I make a stop at Uncle Fun. I am a whoopie cushion and chattering wind-up-teeth kind of gal, which made Uncle Fun the perfect stop before Bri-Ko: All Silent. All Funny. I rarely have any expectations before a production that I review but Bri-Ko has a history in Chicago and it turns out a well-deserved one.

The set is dressed in all white with bare hanging bulbs. A set of three lab coats, construction helmets, and goggles lay on white stackable chairs. Enter Brian Posen, Brian Peterlin, and Tim Soszko: three guys with a wonderful comic aura the minute they step onto the stage. A dramatic donning of the lab coats to the requisite rubber gloves begins a hilarious 70-minutes of visual shennanigans with a lovely dark undertone and a healthy dose of making a mess.

Bri-KoI first wondered if this was going to be a "Blue Man Group" experience, which I don’t particularly enjoy. I am happy to report that Bri-Ko:All Silent. All Funny is built on a number of traditions without the visual and sound overload of the aforementione group. Indeed, less is more in the case of Bri-Ko

Posen, Peterlin, and Soszco are Everymen put into everyday situations with absurd twists. These are the guys that no doubt were suspended for practical jokes and bringing Mad Magazine books to catechism class. They are the kids who were way smarter than anyone figured and did everything over the top.

A simple act of eating a marshmallow becomes an experiment in torturing the straight man with tape measures. Changing a light bulb is an exercise in extremes with everyday objects, all backed by the music of Electric Light Orchestra.

This is comedy in the tradition of the great Ernie Kovacs, vaudeville, and great modern clowns such as Red Skelton or Bill Irwin. The craft of the perfect expression and movement is a disappearing art in this age of uber-realism and high definition. A return to simplicity is the perfect antidote for overloaded technology. Bri-Ko pares everything down to make a wonderful concoction of mayhem and gleeful insanity.

The trio adds shades of satire in every skit. “Bedtime Before Christmas Morning” is a combination of Hardy with two Stan Laurels. Striped pajamas and nightcaps (the head cover not the whiskey shot kind) are put on and then prayers are said. Two say Christian prayers and the third pulls out a hat with earlocks and a prayer shawl. It mocks and alludes to political correctness all at once to great effect and good laughs.

Posen/Peterlin/Soszko make genius use of everyday toys such as the revered hackey sack. “The Death of the Hackey Sack” is a twisted and dark play on consumerism in life and death. This bit is worth the price of the ticket alone. The trio portray the wonderful innocence of children in imagining personalities for the hackey sacks. When the toys inanimately fall to the floor, the 3 show their sorrow by performing an elaborate death ritual. They embalm the sacks with sugary breakfast cereal which probably has a nuclear half life. Three separate funerals ensue. The first is a military affair with a 21-Nerfball salute; an expertly folded tiny American flag presented to an audience member. The second ceremony is a coffee can cremation with the ashes interred in a vase and placed on a shelf. The third is a Hunter S. Thompson affair where the deceased hackey sack is shot into space with cross bow. This was my favorite if for nothing other than my own love of Thompson and the altered consciousness slant on his afterlife.

Another genius skit is what I call “The Crazy Circuit Breaker Box”. Two of the trio accidentally discover a circuit breaker box while the third sits in a wall box, polishing a surviving hackey sack. Each of the breakers causes a different effect including sending shock waves into the hackey sack polisher. One breaker causes a carhop on roller skates to roll by with a hamburger on a tray much to the duo’s delight. Another flip sends out the carhop with juice boxes that they literally drain until the boxes fold over. The third guy gets out of the box and joins them as they introduce him to the magic breaker box. They dim lights, get hamburgers on wheels, and then shock him as a joke. The joke is on them when the guy enjoys the shocks with a sublime smirk on his face. He convulses in ecstasy and tries to keep going but they intervene with faux intervention concern.

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The last part of the show gets more interactive and really messy. A hilarious sketch of lettuce to bio-fuel segues into a made-to-order menu that the audience members can order from the chef on stage. He searches through a giant bowl of water balloons and chucks them into the audience. One person orders split pea soup that is water turned green much to their relief. However, in the great tradition of vaudeville and the holy trio of Moe, Larry, and Curly, a cream pie is a cream pie smooshed in the face of a planted audience member!

Other highlights are a pantomime/sign language rendition of Wilson-Phillips "Hold on For One More Day". The sight of three very manly men acting out such a chirpy chick song gets huge laughs. Another stab at treacly pop culture is what I call “Waiting for Gumball” whereupon two of the trio get gumballs from a giant chute filled with gumballs. The chute doesn’t work for the third of the trio and he goes fetal to Lionel Ritchie’s "Hello". It’s a side bender but all is well in the end. Gumballs, lettuce, Nerfs bb’s and ping pong ball are everywhere. It is as if the bad kids from the block came over and wrecked my room and I loved it.

This is a great family holiday show to forget the chaos of shopping and acquisition. There is nothing like controlled mayhem and madness for the holidays. Watch out for flying lettuce!

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
   

 

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Bri-Ko:All Silent. All Funny is appropriate for some children. I would suggest over the age of 5 – unless you have done some explaining about death and what is appropriate to try at home. This is a messy show so don’t go wearing your prissiest cashmere or Eiffel Tower hair. Your cashmere will get and your tower of hair will fall. It is a lot of fun and an opportunity to not be uptight for an hour or so. And if you’re nimble there is free gum!

Bri-Ko:All Silent. All Funny plays Fridays and Saturdays ant 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm through January 2nd. There are no performances on December 24th, 25th or January 1st. There is a special New Years Eve kiddie show with balloon animals and kiddie cocktails. Stage 773 is at 1225 W. Belmont in the heart of Lakeview. It is accessible by public transportation and there is valet parking for $10.

        
       

REVIEW: Musical of the Living Dead (Cowardly Scarecrow)

 

A Zombie-licious Ghoul’s Delight

 

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Cowardly Scarecrow Productions present
   
Musical of the Living Dead
   
Book/Lyrics by Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts
Music/Arrangements by Mary Spray and
Matt Mehawich
Directed by Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts
at
The Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The Charnel House is certainly an apropos venue for Musical of the Living Dead: its former life was as an old-style funeral home. Gothic wood paneling and light fixtures set the right tone for Cowardly Scarecrow Productions’ ribald horror spoof depicting the dead, annoyingly, not staying dead. Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts, co-creators of book and lyrics, are the madmen behind the mayhem, aided by partners in crime Musical of Living Dead - Scarecrow 020 Mary Spray on music and Matt Mehawich on arrangements. What can be said about cast and crew? They come from Columbia College—or at least most of them. One suspects their cohesiveness depends, in part, on shared training and collegiate associations—if one may use that professional term.

Musical of the Living Dead lies just inches from being a musical comedy that could be juxtaposed with, quote, legitimate theater, unquote. There’s just a tinge of that vibe one finds with the sort of comedy reviews one ventures to Annoyance Theatre for—slap dash irreverence that often looks slapped together. But Spray and Mehawich’s musical arrangements reveal startling sophistication. Plus, acting, singing and dancing quality definitely soars above standard Annoyance fare. Something aspirational peeks out from Cowardly Scarecrow’s lampoon of stereotypical horror plot involving randomly thrown together people escaping zombie hoards. It’s as if they were genuinely striving to create a new Rocky Horror or Little Shop of Horrors.

Good for them that they’ve got some decent crazy ladies for whom to sell their spoof. Barbra Flowers (Jill Valentine), the show’s virgin good girl (sort of), loses her brother Johnny (Tim Soszko) to a zombie attack while trying to lay a wreath at Grampa’s (sic) grave. It’s one thing to watch Barbra unhinge at the prospect of fighting zombies from an abandoned house alongside the musical’s lone black man, Ben Blackman (Quinton Guyton). It’s another to see her get uncomfortably personal with the other fugitives–including the stuffed deer’s head on the wall–while relaying her zombie escape story. Once that happens, you know the girl is gone!

Gone is the only way to describe Helen Cooper (Mandy Whitenack), a dame who views life, and her blighted marriage, through an alcoholic haze. Warring, conservative husband Harry (Billy Sullivan) simply can’t keep up with her. Whitenack pulls out every bit of Betty Davis, Tallulah Bankhead and God-knows-what overripe-screen-star to execute Helen’s boozy domination.

 

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That leaves the rest of the cast to fill out all the other horror flick stereotypes–slutty hick sisters Judy (Liz McArthur) and Trudy McCoy (Mary Spray); Ted (Jonathan Hymen) as the closet gay dude; Fran Davis (Ashley Bush) as the Fox News journalist with over-whipped hair; and helicopter pilot Steve Sherbotsky (Ryan V. Brinkerhoff) as her lover. McArthur cleverly doubles as Karen, Helen and Harry’s little girl, who stays sick in the basement past the point of zombie return. Jacob Clausen opens the musical as George, poetically profound fright fest announcer.

That leaves our hero, Ben, to carry the day and save Barbra from imminent un-death. Most comic interactions between cast members keep the flow going and the musical energy high. However, what holds Musical of the Living Dead back is its over-reliance on typical plot developments, typical horror genre characters and typical schlock comedy splatter. Musical of the Living Dead succeeds most when it takes the audience to uncanny, unexpected places. Ben, being the lone voice of reason among a gang of crazy white people, isn’t allowed to get his Rambo on until the end. That’s really too bad. After all, between the living and the undead, there’s really only so much a brother can take.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Cupid: Plugged (The Cupid Players)

This Cupid needs to plug some holes

 

The Cupid Players

  
The Cupid Players present
  
The Cupid Players: Plugged!
  
Created by The Cupid Players
Directed by
Brian Posen
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont  (map)
through October 2  |  tickets: $18   |  more info 

Review by Barry Eitel

Relationships. Thanks to relationships, we have Michael Bolton, Shakespeare, and reality TV. It seems all art, maybe even our whole existence, boils down to human interaction. There’s bucketloads of emotions to mine.

The Cupid Players, the masterminds behind Cupid Has a Heart On (got to love those puns) which enjoys an open run at iO, know how to rip out the funny side of love and bare it on stage. Their newest venture, Cupid: Plugged! (got to love that name recognition), is part musical revue and part sketch comedy with a rock concert twist, including roadies. The Players cram a ton of material in the hour-long show. The final setlist is scattershot and disjointed, which is a shame considering the comic talent singing their hearts out.

Each number is completely different from every other one. This works perfectly on Youtube, but not so much in a live stage show. Most of the songs revolve around that crazy little thing called love (and/or sex, and/or desperate loneliness). The boys fall for the girls, the girls nag the boys for leaving towels around the home, one girl wakes up next to a really fat guy after a particularly drunk night. But the songwriters also stray from the theme, and a tune is thrown in about a young man torn between Judaism and bacon. Not that the random injections are unfunny, but they muddle the entire experience. It feels like they needed to fill a few more minutes.

cupid players logo The show is set vaguely in the Reagan era, with plenty of legwarmers, ripped t-shirts, and transition music pulled from heavy metal radio. Yet, someone sings a diddy describing his iPhone. The women claim that they are wives and mothers, but they look like they’re a couple of co-eds headed to 80’s night at the local bar. Some characters would take the show to the next level, even if they were incredibly superficial and just a way to string the songs together. But as it is, Cupid: Plugged! has no string.

The cast, which created the show, has plenty of insight into romance, love, and lust. Sometimes the concepts are simplistic, but these are usually the funniest parts. One of the sharpest moments involves Ranjit Souri sitting alone on a park bench warbling about how “sex would be fun.” A fair amount of the lyrics are duds, but on average the songs inspire much more laughter than yawns.

It helps that the cast is having a ball performing. Through all the dancing, guitar riffs, and synchronized hand movements, they keep the energy high and receptive. Some props have to be paid to Sam Lewis’ guitar antics and Billy Sullivan’s stomach-shaving. Far and above the best part of the show, though, is a 70’s pop duet between Jill Valentine and Tim Soszco, complete with ridiculous wigs and sunglasses. I’ve never actually rolled in an aisle, but I came pretty close.

Soszco and Valentine’s performance was so awesome because they created characters. If director Brian Posen and his merry crew of musical comedians came up with some plot or even an overarching idea, it could be comic bliss. The Cupid Players are without question talented; they don’t just perform sketch, they sing it. But Cupid: Plugged! feels like the Players tossed a bunch of jokes in a blender, dumped the contents out on-stage, and then set the whole thing to music. This isn’t a comedy album, it’s a live show. We want cohesion.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

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Director Brian Posen is joined by Carisa Barreca, Ashley Bush, Andrew Graves, Sam Lewis, Israel Pederson, Tim Soszko, Ranjit Souri, Billy Sullivan, Jill Valentine and Amanda Whitenack.  The band includes Sam Lewis and David Hymen.

REVIEW: Annoyance Theatre’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”

TV Classic Transfers Smoothly to the Stage

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The Annoyance Theatre presents:

The Annoyance Christmas Pageant: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

by Rankin/Bass
directed by Megan Kelleher
thru December 20th (ticket info)

review by Keith Ecker

poster I have a distinct memory of sitting in my pajamas as a boy on a brisk winter evening in Texas. The light of the television provided a mock warmth. The big networks had suspended their regular prime-time programming to honor the Christmas season. The usual annual cartoon fair flashed on the screen including the likes of Garfield and Charlie Brown, intermittently interrupted by messages from Campbell Soup and Coca-Cola, both of which wanted me to have a happy holiday and a stocked cupboard of their products.

Amid this Technicolor blend of holiday and commercial cheer were the unforgettable Rankin/Bass-produced featurettes. The most popular—amongst my household anyway—was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a strange telling of the history of Rudolph from birth to ostracization to, for all intensive purposes, canonization. The characters, like in all of the Rankin/Bass specials, appear as stiff, herky-jerky figures. That’s because the specials used stop-motion animation, a method where animators painstakingly pose figurines from shot to shot to give them the appearance of movement. Cheesy songs, a feel-good moral and a narrating snowman completed the show, which has now regularly played on television for the last 45 years.

That’s why it’s high time that the cartoon transitioned from the television and onto the stage. And thankfully the classic gets the top-notch treatment it deserves from the talented folks at The Annoyance Theatre.

For those expecting the usual adult-themed fodder of the Annoyance (the same theatre that brought us Co-Ed Prison Sluts), you will be sorely disappointed. The show is intended for children. However, those who have fond memories of the childhood classic will enjoy the staged retelling, recalling the whimsy of youth and the exuberant holiday spirit that seems to fade with age.

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The production stays true to the t.v. special with only slight adjustments. Sam the Snowman (Jason Geis) narrates the story, setting the stage for Rudolph’s birth and his unfortunate deformity—his bright, shiny red nose. Rudolph (Leslie Nesbit) tries to join the other reindeers in their reindeer games. These games are basically a training camp to teach the young calves to fly and one day join Santa’s sleigh team. Their coach (David Jennings) discovers Rudolph’s red nose, which had been concealed with a prosthetic, and bans him from practice. Meanwhile, in Santa’s workshop is Hermey (Alex DiGiacinto), an elf who doesn’t want to be an elf, but instead aspires to be a dentist. His boss, the head elf (Tim Soszko), sends him home for his disobedience.

Hermey and Rudolph meet and become fast friends. The two run away together and encounter Yukon (Collin Blackard), an arctic prospector. The three continue together on a journey, which takes them to the Island of Misfit Toys. Here they meet an assortment of outcast playthings including a jack-in-the-box unfortunately named Charlie (Tim Soszko).

Meanwhile, the Bumble (Steven Whitney), an abominable snow monster, is on the trail of the adventurers, in part because of Rudolph’s nose, which shines like a beacon. In an effort to protect his friends, Rudolph separates from the pack to find his reindeer family.

Nesbit does a wonderful job mimicking the voice of Rudolph from the televised special and brings a genuine childlike charm to the role that will certainly have children relating to the central character. Geis plays the snowman with absolute commitment. His awkward shuffling, which is meant to resemble the animation of the t.v. program, and detached, over-the-top facial expressions are subtly hilarious. Children probably won’t give it a second thought, but for the adults in the audience, his extreme jolliness is delightfully unsettling. Tahnee Lacey, who has a small role as Mrs. Claus, stands out for her unrelenting homage to the original text. She moves in stop motion, as if each second an unseen hand is adjusting her appendages.

There are a few musical numbers throughout, and it is obvious that the cast was not chosen for their vocal talents. Sounding much like a children’s choir, voices are slightly off key at times. This is forgivable, as the whole production has the intentional feel of an amateur pageant rather than a polished play. However, the lack of vocal projection is a distraction, causing the audience at times to strain to hear the performers over the piano.

Director Megan Kelleher does a nice job of maximizing the Annoyance’s tiny space. She occasionally spills the cast off the stage to create certain visual effects, such as when the heroes evade the monster by floating away on a tiny island of ice. However, there were times where the stage picture was cluttered with actors interrupting the view of the action from certain angles.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a nearly perfect holiday treat for children and adults alike. Don’t go in expecting a highly polished production. Rather, this is pure fun played out with a fancy that will bond you and your child through Christmas cheer and nostalgia.

Rating: ★★★½

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