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Jung Frankenstein–A Neo-Transylvanian Musical

Posin’ at th’ Bar Productions

at Second City, Skybox Studio


By Jack Helbig

“Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise,” Viola Spolin chirps in the first chapter of her seminal book Improvisation for the Theater–words that could easily be the motto for Chicago’s improv scene. And are certainly part of its undoing. The problem with this shibboleth, so inspiring to beginners and to the teachers responsible for them, is that it encourages laziness. And this laziness suffuses all the work done by actors trained in improvisation. If anyone can improvise, then it doesn’t matter if you don’t know much about current events or World War II or the history of psychoanalysis–you just improvise.

It wasn’t always this way. The first generation of Chicago improvisers– taught by Spolin or by her son, Paul Sills–were incredibly well-read and well-informed, most of them students, or at least dropouts, from the University of Chicago. Intellectual depth gave their work a richness and weight no TV addict turned improv addict can hope to equal.

Today few comic actors in Chicago have the mental and cultural resources of a Mike Nichols or an Anthony Holland or an Elaine May, and it shows–even in how they choose to work. Pure long-form improv is easier than a sketch comedy show. Likewise a formless one-act with no story is easier to improvise than a one-act with a story and strong characters. And certainly it’s much easier to close your eyes and ears and hold your nose and imagine that whatever dreck you put onstage is good than it is to actually create something worth watching. This laziness appears in all aspects of the improv scene–in lackluster sets that try to get by on “charm” alone, in flaccid stories that go nowhere and have nothing to say, in bland Second City-style revues created by people who obviously do nothing but watch TV and hang out with other improvisers.

Nowhere, however, is the slothful nature of your average improviser more apparent than in the current vogue for creating shows from appropriated texts. It started at the Annoyance Theatre seven years ago or so when a bunch of performers trained in improv started taking episodes of The Brady Bunch and acting them out. The resulting show, called The Real Live Brady Bunch, was so successful it sent the cream of the Annoyance off to New York, LA, and beyond to perform Brady Bunch shows in the Village, on tour, and on TV until everyone became sick to death of them. Ever since, companies that don’t want to bother writing a whole new show have had the example of The Real Live Brady Bunch to follow: just take some lowbrow TV show or cult movie and perform it verbatim onstage.

At first this new way of creating shows seemed clever–especially the way the Soloway sisters did it. The folks at the Annoyance put a lot of work into The Real Live Brady Bunch, re-creating the look and feel of those dippy Brady Bunch episodes. And in a subtle, wry way the Annoyance performers critiqued the Bradys even as they pretended to praise them.

But no appropriated show since has equaled The Real Live Brady Bunch. For one thing it turned out to be a great moneymaker, and subsequent efforts focused as much on the box office as on the quality of the work. And The Brady Bunch was a particularly inspired choice, a show thirtysomethings had loved as kids and were seeing now through adult eyes–much of the comedy came from the anxiety that audiences felt loving a show that was so obviously manipulative, shallow, and false. Nor has any appropriated show since The Real Live Brady Bunch as thoroughly and charmingly deconstructed what it was based on.

Instead we’ve been getting productions like last season’s Female Trouble, which re-created onstage John Waters’s self-consciously disgusting cult camp comedy. And the recent copyright infringement the producers called Jedi!, which squeezed all the Star Wars movies into three acts and called it theater. Neither of these aspired to anything more than the reflex laughs that come with impersonations of well-known characters. These are fine in themselves: one of the magical things about theater is the illusion that it can revive the dead (like Divine) and attract the gods (Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader) to our little corner of the world. But these shows didn’t have anything to say about the films they were spoofing. Instead–following the improv aesthetic–they simply reproduced the script onstage as cheaply as possible, counting on the inevitable laughs when a stage production falls short on illusion, as when small plastic models were used in Jedi! to re-create George Lucas’s awesome outer-space dogfights.

In many ways Jung Frankenstein–A Neo-Transylvanian Musical, by improvisers Aaron Baar and Brian Posen, is just one more lazy-assed appropriation, one more slapped-together production. The movie they steal from is the Mel Brooks-Gene Wilder classic Young Frankenstein. But Baar and Posen could have constructed a whole new version of the Frankenstein story, a la Red Moon Theater’s haunting puppet production, given the richness of the Frankenstein story and the number of sources available: Mary Shelley’s original novel, James Whale’s 1931 film classic and its 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, not to mention Andy Warhol’s and Kenneth Branagh’s retellings of the tale. Add to that the possibilities inherent in the show’s clever title–which suggests all sorts of jokes about psychoanalysis in general and C.G. Jung in particular–and you have the fixings of a rich, subtle, intellectual evening of comedy.

But Baar and Posen, as you might expect from improvisers, take the easy way out. The only Jung joke in the show comes when Frankenstein’s Igor-like assistant attempts to steal “Karl” Jung’s brain. And instead of creating a whole new show, Baar and Posen slavishly follow the plot of Young Frankenstein, right down to its sarcastically romantic ending: Dr. Frankenstein couples with his buxom lab assistant while his hateful ex-fiancee settles down with the monster.

It might not have been a bad thing, however, if this Posin’ at th’ Bar production had really been a Real Live Brady Bunch-style appropriation of the movie. But unfortunately, as Baar and Posen explained in a Tribune feature, they couldn’t get the rights to the Brooks-Wilder screenplay. So they’ve hung their own mostly lame jokes on the structure of Young Frankenstein. One wonders how far into the process Baar and Posen discovered they couldn’t just take the film and put it onstage the way the folks at Jedi! had done (though eventually that show was shut down for performing copyrighted material without permission).

I’d bet it was pretty far along, based on the fact that most of the jokes are revised versions of jokes in the film. The brilliant scene in the movie in which Dr. Frankenstein tries to show the townspeople that his monster is tame by performing “Puttin’ On the Ritz” with him, in top hat and tails no less, is pretty much lifted in Jung Frankenstein except for an original song–which is a lot like “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” But the derivative nature of the show is nowhere more apparent than in the repeated gag in which Frankenstein, who’s changed his name to Falkstein because as in the movie he’s ashamed of his infamous grandfather, must keep correcting people who call him Frankenstein: “That’s Falkstein!” It’s not nearly as funny as the repeated “That’s Franken-steen” gag in the original, which makes fun of Jews who attempt to disguise their Jewishness with anglicized names; in the final version of the movie’s joke, Frankenstein is called “Frankenstone,” a reference to the way Jewish businessmen of the 20s, 30s, and 40s would change their names. The gag in Baar and Posen’s play carries none of this socioeconomic baggage.

I suppose some might call Jung Frankenstein a satire of the Mel Brooks movie, claiming that the pale imitations of its jokes are really parodies. But who in his right mind satirizes a satire? I call it plain laziness, the same laziness that made Baar, who’s the show’s director, think he didn’t have to worry about such details as the show’s pace or the transitions from scene to scene. That’s the improv aesthetic again. Much of this show has the hodgepodge feeling of improvisation without the concomitant liberating spontaneity.

Calling the show a musical, Baar and Posen have sprinkled songs throughout–most of them highly forgettable, doing little to advance the story or deepen our feeling for the characters. As in bad children’s theater, the songs are there to provide a momentary rest from the narrative. (And the story is there to provide a rest from the songs.)

One song, however, stands out: a short, beautiful ballad in which the monster–played with grace and wit by Kevin Will–sings sweetly and sensitively about how lonely he is. On the schmaltz meter, the song registers terrifyingly close to Kermit the Frog’s self-pitying “Bein’ Green,” but in context the song is inspired, giving the audience a view of the monster’s hitherto unseen soul.

It’s just a flash in the darkness, however, a brief glimpse of what Baar and Posen might have accomplished if they hadn’t taken the easy road–after all, anyone can improvise, anyone can act, anyone can create theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still/ uncredited.