Jacques Brel's Dead and We're Not French/Improv the Night Away | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Jacques Brel's Dead and We're Not French/Improv the Night Away


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Relative Obscurity

at the Roxy


Sarantos Studios

It's been written to death because it's been done to death--the comedy revue based on television. That usually means spin-offs of mercenary quiz games, eye-witless newscasts, ego-tripping talk shows, Saturday Night Moribund, and those all-too-familiar sitcoms. Relative Obscurity, a quartet of energetic yuksters, seem to be pursuing a whole new kind of TV-based humor--they've given us a comedy revue that re-creates the feeling of switching channels.

That's another way of saying that their first original show, Jacques Brel's Dead and We're Not French, is as diffuse as anything a randomly programmed remote-control unit could assemble. A stinker skit can nestle cheek by jowl with a zinger song or a promising premise; with no story line or theme (only a running gag that eventually limps and falls), this scattershot setup seems as eclectic as a Discovery Center catalog.

To begin with the best, the eight songs in this show (music by Bonnie Shadrake and lyrics by the players) really sell themselves. Like Mark Nutter's brilliant work with Friends of the Zoo, these very professional melodies fall easily into recognizable genres--blues, jazz, a scathing send-up of Jacques Brel, and a lovely, if incongruous, four-part arrangement of "Barbara Allen."

But the ideas are novel. The songs include a rollicking hymn to cheese allergies, a tribute to the underutilized "Kitchens of the People Who Don't Cook," a Stephen Foster-style salute to sailing, a deft, weirded-out new-wave paranoid fantasy, complete with punk fright wigs, called "Rhonda's Nightmare Ball," the bizarre theme song from a cable series, "Part Time Posse" (aren't they all?), and "DNA," the upbeat finale that gives us a new, all-purpose excuse for our every failing.

Though it sounds tailor-made for AT&T, a female duet called "The Phone" richly and quickly suggests the tenacity of a friendship that's flourished mainly over the wires. Well supported by Paul Botts on piano and Greg Shanley on drums, the songs are belted out by the leather-lunged cast with all the conviction of first-time composers.

The sketches, on the other hand, testify to some dramatically uneven inspiration. Some of the ideas here demonstrate their own relative obscurity, like the insulated, cerebral wordplay of "Hai, Bai, Hoe" or the frazzled depiction of psychosis as a new fad or the slide lecture on the hidden "price you pay" for politicians and other consumer items. The more mundane moments are more resonant because they're more real: Amy Binns-Calvey and Bonnie Shadrake take an increasingly wacky Sunday-supplement personality quiz, and Kurt McClellan plays "Mr. Baby Man," an emotionally arrested case for whom everything in life is a last straw.

There's promise in "Busy Buddies," a Dickensian satire of a club of tabloid groupies. They work themselves into a lather over the increasing number of pod people in Peru or the idea that the homeless are extraterrestrials who've been dumped here (incidentally the perfect Republican explanation of the problem). A running gag on unrelaxing meditations leaps from a vicious, antisocial mantra to a sort of aerobics class for eating to some frenetic, tension-building visualizations. An ambitious sketch appropriately named "At Sea" begins with some promising role reversals--female pirates want to ravish their male captives--but self-destructs as the male actors refuse to collaborate with this revisionism. (Indeed, the in-joke camaraderie in several sketches late in the show produces another kind of relative obscurity.)

Relative Obscurity at least know how to play to their strengths. Binns-Calvey shows off a flair for character switches: she plays a Marshall Field's fragrance salesgirl who suddenly concocts a fiendish feminist revenge (nothing could be lamer, however, than Binns-Calvey's stab at stand-up comedy). Jimmy Binns lends his nice-guy inoffensiveness to "Bunhead Blues," a song that totes up life's cumulative calamities. McClellan is good at escalating a character's freak-out to the bursting point; Shadrake evinces an amiable dottiness even as she tap-dances her way through the kind of dumb jokes that killed vaudeville.

When they're singing, they're on safe ground; otherwise the members of Relative Obscurity display talents as maddeningly inconsistent as their wildly uneven, channel-switching comic technique.

Of course finished comedy must start somewhere. For would-be yuksters who want to create their own hilarity, Improv the Night Away offers a late-night, do-it-yourself improvisation session hosted by Ted Sarantos. Sarantos, whose comedy classes and Audience Theater have long been features of the improv scene, has just opened--a few doors north of Steppenwolf--his own Sarantos Studios. The intimate upstairs space gives the illusion of a miniature cabaret space, complete with theater lighting and closed-circuit video. It's a nice place to act up.

The inaugural offering, Improv employs an open-mike format (sans microphone) in which Sarantos feeds suggestions to apprentice comics. As always with improvisation, the goal is to land on your feet--whatever changes of setting, time, plot, or character Sarantos hurls at you.

You can watch or play or both. Sarantos begins by having the improvisers discard their inhibitions by wearing funny hats (always a good way to distance yourself from yourself--and not just on New Year's Eve). The actors introduce themselves, get used to the stage and the lights, experiment with assorted funny business--easing into the show until they can switch hats, voices, and personalities with a minimum of self-consciousness.

The rest is pure improv. Sarantos picks no more than three actors at a time to go onstage and use their voices and expressions to generate some interplay. Their body language and make-believe provide grist for Sarantos's fairly supple suggestions--and the amateur comics take it from there.

More often than not, they take it pretty far. If not ready for prime time (hey, this is late-night fare), the improvs I saw over some two hours were fairly fresh stuff, refreshingly rooted in character rather than in a push for the quick orgasm of a snappy punch line. For the most part the ten performers were spontaneous self-starters who listened well and built on each other's energy; there were no attempts to look good by flummoxing the other person or by trying to turn a scene into a monologue.

Some of the never-to-be-repeated bits could have supplied inspiration for some future one-acts. One surprisingly touching three-way skit began melodramatically enough as a husband tried to shield an old acquaintance from meeting his drunken wife. But when the embarrassment was over and the odd couple was alone, the improv artists built up, through some well-chosen instant memories, a deep impression of all the embattled familiarity the two had shared.

Set at Saint Peter's gates, another instant sketch concerned a nervous encounter between an apprentice angel and a newly arrived soul who was being tested for heavenly eligibility. Sarantos had a third actor enter and turn the scene into a celestial version of This Is Your Life. Of course you had to be there, but it was as entertaining as it was unpredictable.

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