HELMUT ZWEITAG & THE BARNSTORMIN' 88S!
at the Annoyance Theatre
WHAT DO YOU THINK? THE SURGEONS ARE KILLING THE PATIENTS IN ORDER TO STEAL THEIR ORGANS AND SELL THEM TO A GUY IN AN OVERCOAT AND SCARF WHO THEN SELLS THEM TO A CHINESE-LIKE GUY WHO IS CREATING SOMETHING EVIL IN THE TOP DRAWER OF A FILING CABINET? OR WOOKIE, WOOKIE
at the Annoyance Theatre
There's a very fine line between clever and stupid, as one of the members of Spinal Tap once observed. The Annoyance Theatre likes to skip back and forth over that line as if it were a double-dutch jump rope. Their shows can display moments of brilliantly creative comedy, then devolve into dick jokes that make Andrew Dice Clay look like a genius.
By now the Annoyance Theatre is almost beyond criticism: its cult following sits in eager anticipation of every move the company makes, drinking malt liquor out of paper bags and guffawing indiscriminately at jokes from both ends of the comic spectrum. Virtually every Chicago publication has run fawning puff pieces on the company, trying to grab onto Annoyance's 15 minutes of fame. And there is something refreshing about a company that has no reverence for the world of theater and delights in the schlocky nature of its shows. But after a while, one has to call a product by its true name and say that schlock is schlock.
On Wednesday nights Annoyance offers two shows that seem to have their roots in B-movie parody. Helmut Zweitag and the Barnstormin' 88s! is a cross between cliche-ridden "win one for the gipper" sports flicks and propagandistic World War II movies. What Do You Think? The Surgeons Are Killing the Patients in Order to Steal Their Organs and Sell Them to a Guy in an Overcoat and Scarf Who Then Sells Them to a Chinese-like Guy Who Is Creating Something Evil in the Top Drawer of a Filing Cabinet? Or Wookie, Wookie takes its cues from those 50s and 60s Jerry Lewis and Don Knotts vehicles featuring nutty inventions and lowbrow high jinks. Watching these shows is sort of like seeing a live-action version of Mad magazine. On the Spinal Tap comedy scale, Helmut Zweitag veers toward the clever, while What Do You Think? tips the scales toward the stupid.
In Helmut Zweitag and the Barnstormin' 88s! we are introduced to a baseball team, a motley crew of eccentrics holding down the fort while all the good ball players are fighting World War II in Europe. The team has a set of quadruplets in the infield, triplets in the outfield, twins as the battery, and a goofy 88-key piano as its mascot. The intrigue begins when the team learns that it's just been purchased by a German who may or may not be a Nazi spy and that one of its players is a female American agent trying to discover a Nazi plot to poison the chocolate at the Hershey factory.
The conceit of twins, triplets, and quadruplets allows the members of the Annoyance troupe to show off their skills. David Summers as both pitcher and catcher switches masterfully from gum-snapping clubhouse wiseass to dense, wide-eyed ignoramus. Matt Walsh, with a few facial contortions and alterations of his baseball cap, portrays a series of goony infielders ranging from a seemingly lobotomized dipsomaniac to a bug-eyed non-sequitur-spouting goofball. Jim Carrane as the coach delivers a marvelously understated performance, and in one of the show's most quirky and delightful moments cures the team of their aches and pains by leading them in an absurd set of warm-ups worthy of the Marx Brothers. Bob Morand as the German team owner, Helmut Zweitag, does some great character work with a part that could easily have fallen into mindless Hogan's Heroes-style comedy.
There are references here and there to films like The Pride of the Yankees, and a couple of bits seem to be borrowed from Bull Durham. If anything, the production is a bit too tame and adorable, with a great deal of mugging and self-conscious cutesy-pie acting on display. Making funny faces and speaking in silly voices only goes so far before it becomes--well, an annoyance.
Far more annoying and far less clever is What Do You Think? The program proudly declares that it was developed in a week, which would be truly noteworthy if it didn't have the feeling of having been slapped together. As rapper L.L. Cool J has observed, "You want a hit, give me an hour plus a pen and a pad."
What Do You Think? has something to do with doctors and conspiracies and body parts: its self-consciously long-winded title summarizes the plot. Patients in a nightmare hospital are anesthetized and murdered so that a trio of evil doctors can sell the body parts to a supposedly Asian fellow who is using them to create a monster. It's sort of like Coma crossed with Frankenstein and turned into a musical.
There are the usual tired bad-taste jokes that aim to shock but wind up as big yawns. After you've seen one guy grab his nuts, pull a fish out of his rectum, or use the term "motherfucker," you're pretty much immune to anything. Song lyrics seem to have been produced by an infant who's just learned he can make adults laugh by uttering curse words. "I'm your candy striper / Not your ass wiper" is one of the gems.
What Do You Think? isn't particularly shocking or revolutionary; it's just kind of immature and crass. Which is disappointing because there are some truly funny moments, too. Ed Furman has lots of fun with the "Chinese-like" Mr. Wu, whose talk transmogrifies from Pidgin English to a full Irish brogue to any of a wide assortment of ethnic accents. Of course the Asian American Defamation League might have something different to say about this sort of humor. In another great comic bit, Jodi Lennon and Dave MacNerland fall in love at first sight and proceed to play out their entire relationship in pantomime--from first kiss to sex to marriage to childbirth to death--in a matter of seconds. But even their comic moments are undermined by a foulmouthed wisecracker who uncorks such brilliant observations as "Hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up my cock."
In short, Annoyance Theatre seems to be acting a lot like a spoiled child who can do anything and its parents will coo. But often there comes a time when the child has done its act once too often and it's not so cute anymore. That's the time that Annoyance will have to watch out for.