Singin' in the Rain; Laughing in Pain | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Singin' in the Rain; Laughing in Pain

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SINGIN' IN THE BRAIN

White Noise

at the Roxy

LAUGHING IN PAIN

Zebra Crossing Theatre

We know we're sick. If you're well-adjusted in the 80s, you've probably had your brain removed. And the psychiatrist is our modern-day Hercules, lifting the burden from our minds to his. Then again, have you ever met a psychologically healthy psychiatrist's kid?

White Noise, a sharp-witted and playful new comedy troupe, revels in our sickness with tales of therapists and terrorists. Their first show, Singin' in the Brain ("a prefrontal comedy review"), well-crafted sketches carefully woven through with recurring themes and characters, which culminates in a hilarious musical based on The Sound of Music and starring Moammar Khadafy.

The show derives its strength from the power of the ensemble. The six actors can hold their own; none is obviously superior or inferior to the others. Certain characters are memorable, such as Ned Crowley's Khadafy and Crowley and Pat Cannon's catatonic twins, but more because we see them over and over than because these actors are better than the others. And it's not only the ensemble that shines. Charlie Sillman on piano, Kevin Irvig on lights, and Tony Boswell on sound add significantly to the evening.

The range of the show is enormous. White Noise slides from true social tragedy, as in their look at two old people (Ruth Feinzig and Jim O'Heir) becoming friends, to fantastical silliness in their piece about two outer-space cuties (Feinzig and Meg Moore) who try to register at an alien registration office spouting only TV slogans. Styles vary from the absurd Wagner-esque opera that erupts when a young man (Jeff Johnson) tries to rent a porn movie to the touchingly realistic 60s garage band rehearsal when a flower child (Crowley) and his Keep America Strong friend (Cannon) come to terms with the draft.

The highlight of the evening is the Moammar Khadafy musical, which begins when Khadafy hijacks the show singing, "The hills are alive with the sound of gunfire." It ends with a terrorist version of "So Long, Farewell" ("So long, farewell, adieu, auf Wiedersehen / Remember me next time you board a plane"). The ending removes the piece from personal exploration into the realm of worldwide insanity in the nuclear age.

The only facet of the show that thoroughly misfires is the (thankfully rare) character of the old fart of a stage manager. He serves no purpose except as the person from whom Khadafy can seize control, and his jokes are reminiscent of bad high school satire.

White Noise deserves commendation on their use of the space. In a small playing area, with an audience crowded together, the group keeps you guessing as to where they're going to show up next. This clever, focused, funny ensemble has an interesting future ahead of it.

Zebra Crossing Theatre offers a serious slant on the same societal sickness in their latest, Laughing in Pain . . . A Comedy of Horrors, Part II. The show has an engaging roughness, but unlike the efforts of White Noise, Laughing in Pain has nothing to bind the individual segments together.

This sequel (part two of "A Comedy of Horrors"), written and directed by Cindy Caponera (part one was a team effort by Caponera and Deb Lacusta), takes the same form as its predecessor, combining music, monologues, and dramatic scenes. Caponera doesn't pass judgment but simply shows onstage the problems she sees around her. Each bit essentially starts from scratch, only rarely building on what has gone before. As a result, while we are confronted by many horrors of modern living, we remember very few of them. There's just too much, with too little focus.

Some moments do stand out. Donn Carl Harper performs a powerful, disturbing monologue on fatherhood and abortion. Joanna Trotter does a nice job as a pathetic coke addict in three interweaving monologues (that do go on too long), while Ross Gottstein is an astoundingly sleazy ice cream seller who delights in pornographic story telling about Hollywood stars. Joel Van Liew shines in a number of places, most notably a lyrical piece focusing on a bicycle race. Carlos Cannon adds spice with his steamy saxophone.

On the flip side, Margaret Stauffer's piano playing and singing, though certainly heartfelt, are jarring in this small space, where her volume and intensity seem to shake the seats. The lyrics of the songs are difficult to hear, and as a result seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the show. Though most of the writing is adequate, Caponera inserts a number of simplistic, childish rhymes that are positively painful to listen to.

Laughing in Pain is a genuine attempt to come to terms with some very serious problems. But the pain is pounded in so hard that the laughs are few and far between, and the lack of any form or consistency leaves us nothing to go home with.

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