Willow Street Carnival

At the 1988 International Theatre Festival of Chicago, a Spanish troupe called Els Comediants transformed the Park West nightclub into a European town square at carnival time. The scantily clad, multitalented actor-singer-dancer-instrumentalists broke down the barrier between performer and audience, stage and seats, to duplicate in an urban barroom the revelry and ribaldry of a rural peasant entertainment form. The show ended with the performers, their drums banging and their trumpets blaring, leading the spectators out onto the street for an impromptu jam in front of the 2100 Lincoln Park West high rise. The whole thing, whether you liked it or not, was genuinely startling and fresh.

Bernard Sahlins, cofounder and longtime producer of Second City and a guiding light of the International Theatre Festival, decided to create a Chicago-style version of Els Comediants–a company that would blend European carnival and circus with urban improvisational comedy of the sort Second City (and its predecessors, the Compass Players and the Playwrights Theatre Club) pioneered and popularized. The result is the Willow Street Carnival, whose debut production, Spring, opened last week.

Sahlins’s concept is promising. One or two more shows and he might make it work. But Spring is a disappointing effort, of interest only as an experiment that, one hopes, will lead to more successful results down the road.

Meanwhile, Sahlins has got seats to fill and drinks to sell in the expensive cabaret space he’s opened at the new 1800 N. Clybourn development. Preoccupied with opening a nightclub, marketing a new theater, and trying to develop a performance style, Sahlins and his company seem to have paid too little attention to what really matters in comedy: the quality of the material.

Spring presents a series of scenes and songs inspired by the title theme. Some of the scenes are brief, revue-style blackouts; others are episodes in several running story lines that start separately and then attempt to interact. The situations are routine at best: a cutesy courtship between a downstate farmer (Rick Hall) who comes to the city to peddle his produce and the homeless woman (Kathryn Hasty) who tries to steal his apples; another cutesy courtship between a repressed physiology teacher (Victoria Zielinski) and the neighborhood boy (Peter Burns) she grew up admiring (“I remember when you first got hair on your legs,” she tells him); the rise of an aggressive young Hispanic politician (Frankie Davila) who breaks away from his sponsor, a machine alderman, over the issue of high-rise development. (One of the show’s more amusing aspects is Jamie Baron’s impersonation of the alderman; in a suit and spectacles, Baron is nearly a dead ringer for Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, in whose 43rd Ward the 1800 N. Clybourn shopping center is located.)

Interspersed among these sketches are briefer bits reflecting spring as the time of the earth’s (and our hormones’) awakening. Chicken Little runs around screaming about the hole in the ozone–the sky really is falling! A school of salmon head upstream to “spawn and die, spawn and die,” despite the Hemingway-cum-Conrad warnings of a philosopher fish. Two male deer lock horns and trade some very human slurs; and a group of parents scream ferociously competitive insults at rival Little Leaguers. There is also a handful of earnest political references to Rich Daley’s giggling, George Bush’s “thousand points of light,” and the U.S.-flag flap at the School of the Art Institute. Paul Barrosse imitating George Burns as a 5,000-year-old tree and Jamie Baron simultaneously tap-dancing and playing the xylophone give a touch of vaudeville.

On top of all these improv-revue retreads, the actors under Sahlins’s direction sprinkle elements of old-world carnival. The actors leap and tumble about the stage (Adrian Danzig is the troupe’s star athlete), wear commedia dell’arte-style masks, and play musical instruments. The script is peppered with self-conscious fertility allusions. Father Sun himself makes an appearance in the form of a huge beach ball tossed into the audience, Mother Nature is played by Paula Newsome as a sassy black woman, Winter is a sour Streets and Sanitation Department worker, and Spring is a fey fairy in green tights and Shirley Temple curls. The show’s two styles collide climactically in a scene in which two Greek delivery boys turn into seminude satyrs and lead the members of a corporate office in what tries to be a Dionysian revel.

It’s all pleasant enough, occasionally cute, and certainly well performed by the talented and experienced cast, which includes veterans of Second City, Friends of the Zoo, Latino Chicago, and the Practical Theatre Co. But it’s utterly lacking in spontaneity. Spain’s Els Comediants seemed to be parading a life-style; the Willow Street Carnival kids look like they’re doing a job (don’t forget those Actors Equity dues, guys). Despite brief efforts at audience participation, there’s no sense of connection between the cast and the customers; and the element of risk that’s essential to all good improv is nowhere to be seen.

Willow Street Carnival’s concept is certainly worth developing. But for now, Spring has about as much to do with the antic energy of carnival as keyboard player Steve Rashid’s synthesized drumbeats have to do with natural rhythm.