Annoyance Theatre, through September 24

Catbox Cabaret

Cats’ Eye Theatre

at the Pumping Company, through September 18


Live Bait Theater, through September 13

By Jack Helbig

Afamous early cabaret–Le Chat Noir–opened in 1881 in Paris, and by the turn of the century there were cabarets flourishing in every major European city. These underground scenes were havens for performers and writers who could voice progressive, often subversive ideas with less fear of repression than in more mainstream venues. Many of the important young writers and artists of the late 19th and early 20th century–among them Frank Wedekind, Bertolt Brecht, Hugo Ball, Jean Arp, Erik Satie, and Colette–were nurtured by the free-spirited atmosphere of the cabarets.

But these days, in America, when you say “cabaret” people think of Kander and Ebb’s 1966 musical, which depicts the last days of the cabaret era before the whole genre (along with the rest of the Weimar Republic’s fertile cultural life) was crushed by art-hating, antimodernist Nazis. Most contemporary cabarets are either piano-bar song sessions, tricked-up comedy revues, or variety shows whose loose collections of entertainers perform abbreviated versions of their usual shtick.

Every once in a while, though, someone comes along with a cabaret that genuinely re-creates traditional cabarets to a greater or lesser degree. Either they produce a cabaret with odd, subversive material that would never fly in a more traditional venue, like Arnie Aprill’s bracing, sadly short lived Fuck You Faggot Fucker Cabaret at Lower Links in the early 90s. Or they follow the more gently subversive route of impresario Dick O’Day, whose Skatt will shock only the most conservative audience members. (Still, he manages to provide an evening’s worth of edgy talent.) Or, in the worst case, they follow the path of Robert Ayres and Doug O’Keefe in Catbox Cabaret: they think they’re doing something wild and radical but have merely, without apparent intention, reinvented the Second City comedy revue sans jokes.

Skatt, emceed by O’Day (aka local entertainer and Wild Chicago reporter Richard Knight), is performed every Thursday at the Annoyance Theatre and successfully adopts that company’s patented kinda rebellious, kinda likable, kinda angry, kinda nice take on things. Some elements of the show aspire to subversion, as when a pair of superb female impersonators–Larry Wisowaty and Brett Bamford–lip-synch songs from the recently closed Broadway revue Sideshow. But in post-Wong Foo, post-Priscilla America, it takes more than a couple of guys in formal dresses doing a little gender bending to shock an audience. Or even to keep them interested: Wisowaty and Bramford overstay their welcome by performing one Sideshow song too many.

Several scripted comedy sketches, performed by an ensemble of Annoyance regulars, satirize the conventions of TV sitcoms and are quite funny. In one of them a guy consciously steals a page from Three’s Company and tries to date two women at the same time; but they too have seen Three’s Company and are onto him faster than he can handle. Still, as Mark Crispin Miller pointed out nearly a decade ago in his book Boxed In, mainstream TV has been deconstructing itself for years, fending off critics with a protective layer of self-mockery. On the other hand, there is something daring about the house that Co-ed Prison Sluts built performing literate, cleverly written, profanity-free material.

As the show’s host, O’Day is wonderfully relaxed and easygoing. One gets the feeling he could adapt to any contingency–fire, flood, plague of frogs–with wit and aplomb. This is surely an asset on a weekly show as spontaneous and open to last-minute changes as this one. (The lineup changes weekly, and the constant turnover and confusion keep O’Day and company hopping.) The night I saw the show O’Day and his sidekick and “off-camera” announcer, Joe Bill, gracefully accommodated the sudden appearance, 15 minutes into the evening, of a handwriting expert they assumed had blown them off. We all took Bill’s jokes about their “surprise” guest, the Amazing Lottie, to be part of the act. But after the show I overheard Bill chuckling about how late Lottie was–providing an inkling of how much anxiety and energy are involved in keeping this marvelous show running. Whatever it takes, it’s worth it.

Cats’ Eye Theatre is a Boston-based troupe that moved to Chicago about a year ago when one of the show’s founders, Robert Ayres, began performance-studies graduate work at Northwestern. Their first show in Chicago, Catbox Cabaret, is an evening of songs and sketches modeled on those at Cabaret Voltaire, a World War I dadaist hangout in Zurich. Judging by the show’s listless, uninspired opening night, however, Ayres and coartistic director Doug O’Keefe have some work to do before Cats’ Eye will stir up any of the excitement it inspired in its hometown (judging by enthusiastic reviews).

Most of the hamfisted satire–a slash at office politics, a bit about senseless violence, lame sketches incorporating left-wing catchphrases–falls flat on its face. Ayres and O’Keefe should catch a couple of Second City shows, if only to get an idea of how high they have to jump to outdo the city’s grand dame of comedy.

The elements that come closest to realizing the wonderfully creative anarchistic spirit of the original European cabarets are the show’s songs (like the moody “How Much I Miss You”) and the sillier comedy pieces (like the wonderful bit of dadaist wordplay “Katakanga”). Here’s hoping that in their next show Cats’ Eye Theatre will include more Dada and less didacticism.

Paul Turner is a solo performer who might do better in a cabaret setting. Excelling at quiet, heartfelt stories about blue-collar losers, in the past he’s been one act of several and hasn’t had to carry the burden of the whole evening. He could simply mix his muted colors into the whole, as he did in the late-night hit The Hick, the Spic, and the Chick (he was the hick), without fear that his audience would leave wanting less.

On his own, Turner doesn’t yet know how to keep an audience interested for an entire evening. In Horseshoe, directed by Donna J. Fulks, he seems to think that the more amazing his protagonist’s exploits, the more the audience will be drawn in. In fact, the opposite occurs. Turner starts strong, reminiscing about life in the southernmost tip of Illinois–the most autobiographical section of his monologue. But then he loses steam as his story becomes more and more fictional. Unlike Turner himself, who moved from his southern Illinois home to Southern Illinois University to Chicago, his protagonist stumbles from a third-rate community college to a second-rate state school to a series of go-nowhere jobs in suburban Saint Louis. Along the way he cracks, and before the evening is out he becomes involved in a Missouri-wide OJ-style low-speed chase covered live on local TV that makes him something of a celebrity.

By the time the cops roughly haul Turner’s character out of his car, all that made the earlier part of the monologue rich and evocative–the descriptions of rural Illinois, the odd characters and bucolic beauty of Shawnee National Forest–has disappeared, replaced by the franchise restaurants and discount stores and endless ribbons of asphalt, concrete, and steel that make up Saint Louis County.

As a Saint Louis refugee, I know Turner has gotten many of the details right about life in the exceptionally boring Saint Louis suburbs, right down to the cultural and class differences between folks living in the south side of Saint Louis County and those living in the significantly more affluent “West County,” as the locals call it. But sometimes you need to do more than get the details right to keep an audience enthralled. You need to put your heart and soul into the story, and you need to keep it up for an hour or more. Turner doesn’t yet have the stamina to give us 60 minutes of truth for our ten dollars.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Skatt theater still; Horseshoe photo by Daniel Guidara.