Monday, December 3, 2007

Denise's Friday Night Book Club (Book Optional)


Denise's Friday Night Book Club
Written and Directed by Greg Wendling and Brian Crowley
Friend Productions
Donny's SkyBox Theatre
Fridays at 10:30pm through December 14th
Tickets are $10; $8 for students; $5 TC students

A by-product of The Second City Writing Program and the Skybox Theater has been the development of sketch revues where the writers are separate from the cast. (Most sketch revues are written and performed by the cast.) In many ways, this helps boost the quality of these shows because the writers are focused on writing and the actors are focused on character and scenework. There's typically less ego involved regarding the ensemble, so the show as an overall product gets more attention.

Unlike many sketch revues in Chicago, Denise's Friday Night Book Club doesn't feel slapped together in an Old Country Buffet of mixed themes, styles and quality. Many things about it are just right.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should inform you that Greg and Brian, the writers and directors, are also a part of Robot vs Dinosaur - Chicago. I'm already of fan of their writing. And of them. My fiancee and I have an agreement. She'll go see one live show a month with me. I used to drag her to everything I went to see and it was killing her love for theater to bare witness to the amount of crap I endure. So, when I take her to see a show, I try to make sure it will be of high quality. Brian and Greg's show seemed like a good bet, and it was. We both enjoyed it.

The Denise of the title is a housewife/tyrant who runs a book club with an iron fist. The other ladies are relieved at Denise's ill-fortune of breaking her pelvis and are spending their book club time drinking wine and enjoying each other's company until there's a startling knock at the door. She has sent her whipped husband in her stead with a list of questions about the book and instructions to report back detailed information on everyone's responses.

This scene becomes the spine of the show as we periodically check back in with the club members and their struggle to wiggle out of the Nazi-like clutches of Denise. Most of the scenes deal with issues of power - finding power, losing power, abusing power - all at a very everyday life level. While not at all intending to be satirical in nature, DFNBC manges to show us that the same personality disorders that lead to shady elections and oppressive regimes are very much alive and well and living in middle-America.

One of my favorite scenes from the evening involved to co-workers, Meryl and Regina - performed by Katie O'Brien and Kristen McLaughlin. Kristen's character accidentally swears while making a mistake at the computer. Katie, her cubicle mate, takes this as an opportunity to bond and give herself permission to "unleash." In the hands of less experienced actors and writers, this scene could easily have gone blue quickly and become more about the vulgarity than about Kate's character's undercurrent of desperation to bond with her co-worker.

Less successful was a scene where a man tries to kill himself. Not because of the dark humor, but because of a logic problem with his final decision. I won't give it away because it will also give away the end to the scene. I'll just say, all he had to do was rewind and look up the name. Another scene about a man excusing himself from a business meeting of women to use the bathroom and the women all think he's going to masturbate is well-executed, but doesn't really go anywhere.

Brian and Greg's writing is sophisticated in that most of their scenes are about the characters and their relationships. None of the scenes come across like "here's the funny idea and now we're going to hit you over the head with it for four more minutes than we need to" as many revues do. Their quirky Letterman-like attention to detail tells you that these guys really care about the people whose stories they are telling.

The tricky part about the scenes is that I think they would work better in the hands of more experienced and more mature actors. Some of the scenes, and characters in some of the scenes, that I thought were just okay, might have been more believable and popped in the hands of older actors with more life experience. And that's nit-picking. It's a really good show.

Megan Presslak, Katie O'Brien, and Kristen McLaughlin excel in the (thankfully) multiple female roles Greg and Brian have written for them. Matthew Mages and Josh Shuter have their fine moments -Matthew as a boyfriend who has found a guy just like his girlfriend and Josh as the man accused of doing questionable activities in the restroom- but, at this point in their development, lack the chops to ground all their characters.

There are two shows left, so go see it. Denise's Friday Night Book Club moves in the right direction for sketch comedy revues. Smart, funny and rare in this town.


A Lead-Based Holiday Sketch Comedy Revue
Written by Ritija Gupta, Joseph Jurek, Jessica Murguia and Lauren Vinopal
Directed by Ritija Gupta
Gorilla Tango Theatre
Saturday, December 8th at 6pm
Tickets are $10

Again, in the interest of full disclosure, all of the writers on this show have shown up to RoboWriters on Thursday nights. On one level, it was very exciting for me to see many of the pieces they worked on in the writing group a few months ago being performed to a packed house.

Mass Recall is the first production put together by a group of students still currently in the Second City Writing program. They are full of enthusiasm for sketch comedy and jonesing to put on a show. While certainly rough around the edges, there are a few gems in this show. Scenes where a man has asked Satan - his childhood friend - to be his baby's godfather, a Jane Austen takeoff, and a phone sex call gone awry are all clever and fun and show the potential of this group. The rest of the show tends to be standard sketch and subversive holiday fare relying too much on racial slurs and vulgarity, substituting shock for humor. A few scenes just never find their footing enough conceptually. A scene where a bear on the verge of extinction has potential, especially since the bear turns out to be such an asshole, but it is too heavily plotted and has too many angles it's trying to work. The bear's a blast, though, especially as performed by Scott Fenstermaker.

I admire this group for their moxie and they are worth a look if only for the bragging rights later of "Oh, yeah, I saw them at Gorilla Tango years ago..."


On Friday, I asked...

"Parliamentary candidates in Thailand have been accused of buying votes for an upcoming election using what?"

35% said "Free iPods"
- No, but that might work for buying my vote.

14% said "Free Massages"
- That would be nice. Every election would have a happy ending.

7% said "Free DVDs"
- Even they don't put much value on a pirated Dane Cook movie.

42% are standing at attention with "Free Viagra"

According to the AFP, parliamentary candidates in Thailand's upcoming election are trying to buy the votes of elderly men by passing out free Viagra, a local government official said Friday. Guess it's the modern day equivalent of candidates passing out cigars. In this case, very happy cigars.