Active Pets Theater Company

at the Roxy

Every few months, the Players Workshop of Second City disgorges another batch of would-be comedians who have been dipped in the art of improvisation.

Now what are they to do? Far too many come up with the same answer: they stage a Second City-style revue. Through improvisation, they create a few humorous skits. Then they find a bare stage somewhere, put a few chairs on it so it looks almost exactly like the stage at Second City, and perform the skits, each one ending in a blackout. It’s a formula that has grown stale at Second City, but it persists there because Second City is Second City–landmarks are not supposed to change.

But why all these Second City impersonators? I thought improvisation was supposed to foster creativity.

Anyway, the Active Pets Theater Company consists of five people. Three are graduates of the Players Workshop of Second City, and one is currently studying at the Second City Training Center. (The fifth is a standup comedienne who just flew in from Minneapolis, and boy, are her jokes tired!) They take over the stage at the Roxy once a week to perform their first comedy revue, titled Circus of Euglena: An Organic Review. The show is just like a Second City revue except for one thing–it’s not even occasionally funny. In fact, it’s so unfunny that it comes close to being a wicked parody of Second City; but such a parody would require some wit, and there’s not much of that in Circus.

Instead, there are skits that flop like dying mackerel all over the stage. In one, a woman sits between two men who are obviously competing to impress her. “Mine’s bigger,” one man says. “Ooooh,” the woman gushes provocatively. “Mine’s thicker,” says the other. “Really?” she responds. And so it goes, until the men finally unbuckle their belts to compare . . . their belts.

The longest skit (at least it seemed the longest) revolves around an unhappy welfare couple living with the wife’s nagging mother. The mother likes the cheese provided by the welfare agency, but her sullen son-in-law hates it and doesn’t want it in the apartment. When he discovers several bricks of the stuff in the apartment, he throws them out the window, prompting an investigation by agent Friday, who is a parody of Jack Webb as Sergeant Friday on the old Dragnet TV show. The entire bit is even dumber than it sounds.

The fundamental problem with Circus is that improvisation is used to generate gags, not scenes. In true improv, actors portray characters stuck in a particular situation. The idea is to explore these characters–to discover their personalities so their reactions will seem honest and authentic. Since human nature is inherently humorous, such authentic portrayals are often funny, but only because they reflect something true about people.

The difference between improvisation and what the Active Pets are doing becomes apparent in a skit that is similar in concept to one currently in Rosebud Was the Sled, the bright new show at Second City Northwest in Rolling Meadows. In the Active Pets’ version, a son comes home to Penguin Falls, Minnesota, to visit his elderly parents. They speak with a strong Norwegian accent (of course), and are absorbed in small-town life. Nothing their son says makes any impression on them, so he starts to brag about his accomplishments. He has just won the Pulitzer prize, he says. No reaction. He has met a nice girl and he’s going to get married. No reaction. He’s a homosexual. No reaction. Finally he starts to speak with a Norwegian accent, and then they listen to him.

In the Second City Northwest version, a son stops by to visit his aging parents, just to say hello and, incidentally, to tell them he loves them. His parents don’t listen to him either, but not because he’s not speaking in the proper dialect. Rather, the family–like so many families–is locked into patterns of communication that prevent the members from hearing each other. The father reflexively criticizes the son; the mother constantly dotes on him. Neither one can hear what their son is trying to say. The skit is funny because the characters are so painfully plausible–family members are notorious for failing to hear each other.

The Active Pets don’t seem to understand that effective humor is deeply rooted in reality. Consequently, their skits are farfetched and silly, but never really funny. Perhaps extremely skilled performers could add some humorous stage business to these skits, but director Don DePollo wasn’t able to coax memorable performances out of the five members of the Active Pets–Julia Anderson, David Gutfreund, Julia Leonas, J.D. Lloyd, and David Magoon.

The four who have improv training display some stage presence, at least. They know how to work together. Julia Anderson, however, seems unconnected to her coperformers and to the material. As a stand-up comic, she seems most comfortable as a soloist, and gets lost in any scene that requires acting ability.

So Circus of Euglena looks like a make-work project for unemployed improvisers. One of their skits makes fun of a mime so desperate for an audience that he accosts people on the street and practically begs them to watch him perform. They shouldn’t make fun of the poor mime, however–after this comedy revue, the Active Pets might soon find themselves in the same predicament.