GAZA STRIP SEARCH, OR YASSER THAT'S MY BUBBEH
Second City Northwest
Once upon a time, when this nation was young, there was something called a hamburger. People grilled them at local diners and restaurants, and they got to be so popular that national hamburger chains started sprouting up. The tasty delicacy became available everywhere, but the product was so changed by mass production that it lost all its flavor. Then there was baseball. People played it on sandlots and city streets, but now it too has become so commercialized that the charm of the game has all but disappeared.
And then there was something called improv. Talented, creative people, riffing on sketches and musical numbers, reveled in its spontaneity. Second City was at the forefront of this inventive style, but soon it too fell victim to commercialization, becoming the veritable Burger King of comedy revues, franchising and churning out a bland, predictable product. Nestled appropriately amid an Arby's, Rusty Pelican, gas stations, and office complexes in Rolling Meadows, Second City Northwest serves up fast-food comedy--hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, hold the humor too.
Although recently Second City has shown a willingness to play with and challenge the same old tired format of yuppie life-style sketches, tame political songs, and one-line blackout vignettes, Second City Northwest's Gaza Strip Search, or Yasser That's My Bubbeh reeks of boredom and resignation. The cast seems hemmed in by the deadly dull Second City formula, which is long on technique but short on imagination.
The first act of Gaza Strip Search is, without a doubt, the weakest collection of sketches bearing the Second City logo I've ever seen. The targets the six-member ensemble has chosen are puzzling to say the least. One sketch bashes the Chicago Teachers Union, another ridicules elderly women in grocery-store checkout lines, and a third, NAFTA-inspired scene makes fun of lazy, shiftless Mexican workers. Everybody should be considered fair game for mockery, I suppose, but since the makeup of this cast follows the sacred Second City rule--no one older than 35, and no more than one nonwhite per cast--the humor comes off as a little smug.
Several of the sketches are in poor taste, and others simply don't work. One musical number targets folk-singers pissed off because outbreaks of peace worldwide have left them nothing to protest. This number is as politically ignorant--one line glories in the fact that "the Croats and Serbs are talking at last"--as it is dated and predictable. Also painfully obvious is a monologue delivered by an actor who proclaims the superiority of live theater over TV, only to lose his train of thought as he gets caught up in an episode of Herman's Head. Worst of all is a lengthy funeral sketch that mocks the grieving family and a disturbed son who snatches off the wig his mother wore during her unsuccessful chemotherapy. Ouch.
The second act does pull the show from the depths of the embarrassingly dreadful to the safe shores of mediocrity. A couple of clever sketches demonstrate that there is genuine talent in the cast: in "Crosswords" Aaron Rhodes and John Hildreth play lunatics engaged in virtually indescribable word-association games, and there are some laughs to be had from a scene in which the Virgin Mary appears to some stoned bikers. But overall the success of the second act is primarily the result of the low expectations engendered by the first. The half of the audience that filed out before the onset of the obligatory improvisation scenes at the end didn't miss much, unless you consider Joseph Cardinal Bernardin directing an altar boy to sample a communion wafer from his crotch high comedy.
THE IMPROV DOUBLE FEATURE
Manic Impressive and Eight Degrees Below Normal at the Improv Institute
The spontaneity and imagination Second City has lost can be found in two young but surprisingly mature improv companies appearing Sunday nights at the Improv Institute in "The Improv Double Feature." Say what you will about the occasionally unpolished and unfocused performances by Manic Impressive and Eight Degrees Below Normal, at least what they're doing is exciting and original--and a hell of a lot funnier than anything going on at Second City Northwest.
Manic Impressive is probably the less impressive of the two. They display a certain lack of confidence, and a couple of the actors fail to project and to fully commit to their characters. But as the show progresses the hesitancy gradually disappears and their talents begin to shine. The centerpiece of their performance is an improv game called "The Event," in which the company performs an entire play based on an audience suggestion. On the evening I was there, the event suggested was a political convention, triggering scenes in a broom closet, a commissary, a convention hall, and a men's room. There was also a dream sequence involving a senator in a loincloth escaping a pack of meddling reporters and lobbyists. Some scenes misfired--a common problem in improv--but a far greater number succeeded.
Eight Degrees Below Normal's completely improvised musical Clef Notes is incredibly ambitious--the wonderfully creative and energetic performers triumph admirably over what seem insurmountable odds. From the seed of one audience suggestion sprouts a complete Broadway-style musical loaded with clever plot twists, appropriately hokey dialogue, and hilariously cheesy music gleefully improvised by pianist Jeff Shivar.
On the night I was there Eight Degrees Below Normal was saddled with an absolutely wretched concept for comedy: "peanut butter autopsy" was the audience suggestion. But the troupe generated truly hilarious madcap comedy, and without ever stooping to cheap laughs. In a company of outstanding talents, artistic director Melissa Pharr distinguished herself as a highly intelligent and imaginative performer.
Manic Impressive and Eight Degrees Below Normal bring to mind the sort of inspired lunacy that Second City was famous for before it became middle-aged, tired, and predictable. You won't find any of this "We'll take your suggestions, and then after a 20-minute intermission we'll do something completely different than what you suggested" in either of their performances. These are entertainers willing to take the risks that other, more established companies won't. Let's hope that if they do become rich and famous they won't start setting up branches in Toronto and the burbs.