at At the Tracks


at Drury Lane South

I recently saw a stage magician who made beautiful young models appear from and disappear into raised, thin, flat platforms on wheels. I assumed at first that some trick with mirrors was disguising a trapdoor into the stage; I later learned that the secret was, quite simply, the physical dexterity and flexibility with which the models hid themselves in the hollow platforms. The “magic” was nothing more–and nothing less–than the remarkable virtuosity of the performers.

ImprovOlympic, the itinerant improvisational comedy show currently ensconced in At the Tracks (a bar and restaurant located on the urban prairie about a mile southwest of the Merchandise Mart), is a lot like stage magic: you keep looking for the mirrors, for the tricks–the little code words used to set off prewritten scenes and prearranged endings, like those other, more established improv troupes use–but they’re not there. ImprovOlympic–always interesting, usually funny, frequently brilliant–is completely improvised from start to finish; the success of each performance is based entirely on the dexterity and flexibility–in this case mostly intellectual, but physical too–of the actors.

The core of ImprovOlympic is an improv game called “The Harold.” It consists of a team of seven or eight players who take a single theme suggested by someone in the audience–vacuum-cleaner salesmen and New York cabdrivers were the ideas used by the two Harold teams I recently saw. That theme is the basis for other themes suggested by free association–from vacuum-cleaner salesmen to salesmen, cleaning, work, looking for work, traveling, and anything else that happens to emerge. The teams break into pairs and trios to create a series of ongoing sketches, which alternate and sometimes interrelate; the narrative crosscutting is not unlike the way a TV soap opera juggles its plots, except here the process is spontaneous and intuitive. The emphasis is certainly on keeping the audience amused; but obvious gags and easy jokes are played down in favor of a richer, more subtle style of humor. In short, though At the Tracks is certainly a bar, one doesn’t get the impression that the performers are there to sell you drinks, as is true at so many comedy places; rather, they are there to show you the process of improvisational comedy.

In the several months since I last saw a performance, the ImprovOlympic “house teams”–Tequila Mockingbird and Fish Shtick–have improved enormously in comic sharpness, and in such stage skills as movement, vocal projection, and character differentiation. The ImprovOlympic format is competitive–each performance is judged on teamwork, structure, and use of theme–and the night I attended, Fish Shtick was the clear winner with a fast-paced, surrealistically funny set in which comic abandon was guided by keen theatrical discipline; Tequila Mockingbird, which opened the show, had many clever moments but failed to shape them into a cohesive whole. This is to say that the less successful Mockingbirds were far better–wittier, more intelligent, and more honest–than 95 percent of the other improv comedy around town right now, but fell short on this occasion of the demands of their own form. But I offer this critique only as an example; every ImprovOlympic is different.

The Harold was devised 21 years ago by Del Close, whose work in improv predates Second City (of which he was later a director). Close remains the guiding spirit behind ImprovOlympic, which is performed by students of him and his partner Charna Halpern. An actor better known these days for his work on the “legit” stage (most recently in the Goodman Theatre’s Pal Joey) and the screen (he was the demented priest in The Blob), Close occasionally sits in on an ImprovOlympic show. He opened the performance I saw with a monologue that touched on such topics as Rollo May and Lenny Bruce, Jewish prayer rituals, the likely effect of Kitty Dukakis’s former speed habit on her and Mike’s sex life, and the roots of today’s improv comedy in the old Compass Players in Chicago and Saint Louis in the late 1950s. One of the original Compass members was Jo Henderson, who recently died in a car accident. According to Close, she had been “fired to make room for Mike Nichols.” ImprovOlympic’s competitive final–at Second City on September 12–will include a tribute to Henderson in which Close and some ImprovOlympic players will perform sketches from the old Compass days. The tribute should add a revealing historical perspective to what in any case promises to be an evening of fine, authentic comedy.

The Phantom and the Superstars, produced and directed by flamboyant entrepreneur Al Anthony at Drury Lane South in Evergreen Park, veers from the terrifically talented to the terminally tacky; its very erraticness is the key to its almost absurd appeal. Trumpeted as “a new musical revue with mind-boggling illusions and spectacular, re-creations of superstars”–the hype is part of the fun in a show like this–The Phantom and the Superstars combines some excellent stage magic (performed by illusionist Craig Dickens with the deliberately smarmy charm of a suburban car dealer) and a first-rate vocal impressionist, Bill Acosta, whose repertoire ranges from a genuinely exciting Tom Jones to a camped-up Julio Iglesias/Willie Nelson duet to an off-color reinterpretation of Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, with a lusciously ludicrous Barbra Streisand impersonation by one Sharon Michaels. Michaels comes off as everything Streisand ever feared she might become–a loud-mouthed, overweight, grossly coy lounge singer relying on broad Jewish inflections and a bravura belt with no room for subtlety, flirting with the men in the audience like some weird combination of Mae West and Martha Raye.

Other performers round out the bill with impersonations of Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, and Prince–this is definitely a show with something for everyone–as a troupe of scantily clad dancers gyrate to a taped sound track that seems oddly appropriate to the event: I thought disco was dead, but, like Marilyn Monroe, it struts the stage of Drury Lane.

All this–plus a flock of white doves that swoops across the audience–for a remarkably low ticket price of $8 to $11. The Phantom and the Superstars may just be the thing to see when you thought you’d seen everything.