That Sinking Feeling: The Master of Disaster Remastered, Free Associates, and BS, Free Associates, at the Ivanhoe Theater. The Free Associates are pretty much geniuses when it comes to recognizing the potential for long-form improvisation in various genres. Whether they're ransacking David Mamet's bag of tricks (The Scryptogram) or goofing on Brian Friel's pastoral Irish dramas (Chancing at Lunacy), they consistently weigh in as one of the most intelligent, well-versed troupes in Chicago.
But attempting to generate a coherent, self-contained piece from a scattershot, technology-oriented genre like film is sheer folly. The troupe is undone by its poor choice in That Sinking Feeling, a tribute to such cheesy 1970s disaster epics as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. For one, plot always took a backseat to special effects in these films, and though the Free Associates make some halfhearted attempts to portray earthshaking disasters, they simply can't reproduce a giant swarm of killer bees or a flaming skyscraper without a budget the size of Texas.
It's always a bad sign, too, when the audience seems sharper than those onstage. On the night I attended, the seven cast members squandered or ignored the rich gifts of audience members' suggestions: a vast underwater golf resort called "Tee World," an LPGA tour pro with mysterious psychic abilities. Sadly, the only thing about this soggy mess that could be considered faithful is a series of repetitive scenes in which characters scramble to locate an "exit" from their death trap.
By contrast, the premise behind BS is almost airtight. Four years after it premiered, the troupe's long-running dissection of the hospital soap opera ER continues to mature--and draw packed houses. Using audience suggestions for a personal crisis or a split-second decision, the seven cast members improvise a parody that mimics the original's breakneck pacing and petty ego clashes. On the night I attended, bleeding hangnails and an Australian gynecologist with very dirty hands plagued the staff of Benevolent Saints.
The troupe's dead-on impressions of the ER neurotics are a bonus for regular viewers. For everyone else, BS offers a textbook example of what a late-night show ought to be: silly, spontaneous, and wickedly funny. --Nick Green