Level 6 and Free Pickles

at Shay’s

Only suckers and wimps do just one show at a time: that seems to be the spirit behind the two new revues being hosted by the comedy group Level 6, and for chutzpah alone they deserve credit. While running their straight improv show A Mean Watusi every Sunday night at Shay’s bar, they’ve also put together a scripted show, Silence of the Frogs, a so-called “nonrevue of unimprovisation,” which they perform Wednesday nights. Unfortunately, the young group’s ambition has overreached their talents, and what might make a fresh 90-minute show has been inflated into two overlong evenings.

The group’s biggest mistake is failing to isolate its real creative strength. In A Mean Watusi Level 6 shows what it does best with new twists on the standard improvisational games and some quick wit. In one thematic sequence, an elevator operator takes the audience on a tour of an upscale lakeshore apartment building as the actors play out scenes in the various apartments. Later, a simple scene between two people in a restaurant is frozen and replayed in the style of film or literary genres the audience suggests, with hilarious results. While not all the scenes are winners, the group’s good humor and high energy make the clunky moments easier to take.

But Level 6 makes the evening needlessly long by adding another improv group called Free Pickles to the bill. Free Pickles handles their segment with an awkward hesitancy that is almost embarrassing. In one of the worst scenes, everyday complaints (“I hate CTA bus drivers,” “I hate people who don’t return calls”) are gathered from the audience before the show, and two actors establish a weak scenario in order to read the complaints out loud. But the actors are forced to rely on audience sympathy for laughs; while the members of Level 6 communicate with one another onstage, the actors in Free Pickles only try to out-mug one another. The only logical explanation for their presence is that they make Level 6 look that much better.


Level 6

at Puszh Studios

In Silence of the Frogs, the creative limitations of Level 6 really begin to show. One would think the luxury of a script would prompt them to weed out some of the dross, but instead their material only seems worse. After an interesting introduction in which actor Don Hall plays a muted trumpet to an audio background of croaking frogs, the show screeches to a halt in the first scene. On a train platform a couple discuss their failing relationship, and as they talk two goofy workmen arrive and begin to argue the merits of 70s sitcom actors. When the woman says she’s pregnant, the nosy workmen compare her to a TV character who had an abortion, and she storms off insisting she wants to keep the child.

With its cliched dialogue, nondescript characters, and half-realized situation, the sketch ends before anything really happens. To make things worse, Joe Janes’s direction is so uncertain that the actors appear uncomfortable as they carry out silly stage business (such as when the workmen begin scrubbing an el platform, a spectacle I have never witnessed in all my years as a commuter).

The rest of the scripted material suffers from the same problems. The choppy structure and uneven quality of material give the revue a sluggish pace that is often hard to follow. While a lack of communication between people seems to be the vague thematic thread, it is never clearly outlined and comes across as a lazy afterthought. The show picks up, though, after Silence of the Frogs, when the group returns to do some improv.

In their press release, the group makes a revealing statement: “In Silence we’re out to create good art. That doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining, it’s just not our primary objective.” Maybe they should abandon their pretensions and stick to what they’re good at. At least in improvisation there’s not enough time to think about making good art.