Second City E.T.C.


at Cafe Amore



at the Improv Institute

All formats get stale. When straight comedies got dull, up sprouted absurdist farce. When absurdism got predictable, rapid-fire improvised sketches made their debut. When this formula had seen its day, longform improv–in which a single audience suggestion yields an entire play–arrived on the scene.

Would that the same could be said for theater criticism: despite all the changes in the theater world, criticism remains its stodgy old self. Does criticism have to be standard and oldfashioned? Or could it take some lessons from improv comedy and combine gamesmanship with the usual elements of criticism to create a bold new style?

Introducing the first-ever improv review.

Let me explain the rules. We’ll be playing three games. The first is called “Rhyming Endings and Beginnings”: I have to review an improv show much as I would usually, but the last word of each sentence has to rhyme with the first word of the next. Sound complicated? It’s not. The name of a show and place? Lois Kaz at Second City E.T.C.? Perfect.

One of the best improv shows in quite some time is Lois Kaz on the E.T.C. stage of Second City. Witty and uncompromisingly intelligent, this long-form improv takes one simple audience suggestion and spins it out over the course of two hours without ever losing its focus or the element of surprise. Comprised of 13 of Chicago’s most gifted improv players, Lois Kaz is an unbelievably deft exercise in democratic theater: each performer’s talents are allowed to shine. Fine ensemble work created an unpretentious, cooperative atmosphere so thoroughly enjoyable and exciting that I was sorry to see it ending.

Attending on opening night, I saw scads of clever scenes based on the audience’s suggestion of “Yosemite Park.” Dark comedy about the devil as a jogging CEO and an evil fast-food-restaurant mascot was combined with wonderfully good-natured physical humor about a Gothic novelist who can’t complete the yarn he’s spinning. Grinning and energetic, the cast leapt from scene to scene and character, to character without ever stumbling, breaking character, resorting to tastelessness, or falling victim to any of the other traps that ensnare most improv shows. Those interested in discovering the new stars of Chicago comedy theater should zip on over to Lois Kaz for an evening most merry.

Very highly recommended. Ended.

OK, the next game is called “Improv Song”: the review must take the form of an entirely original ditty. All you have to do is supply the tune. Minnie Pear Jam at Cafe Amore? Excellent.

Minnie Pearl Jam plays at Cafe Amore.

It’s yet another long-form improv foray.

It’s got limited humor and revels in camp.

Audience suggestion? “Tonya Harding’s a tramp!”

There’re a lot of talent in this five-member crew,

But what they offer is not all that new.

There’re lots of sight gags and innuendos about sex.

There’s even a trite song called “Generation X.”

On the night I attended, they invented a tale

About a Twilight Zone town where hard work lands you in jail.

They played Irish cops, even old vaudevillians

And other folk who still go to cotillions.

What this has to do with Tonya Harding, I don’t know.

Maybe I’ll figure re it out in a week or so.

But the main problem here is not evading the point,

Or even the too-bright lights in the joint.

Nor was I troubled by the cash register’s “k’ching!”

When somebody purchased some mocha latte thing.

No, the worst trouble in Minnie Pearl Jam

Is that a couple folks in the cast know too well how to ham.

They’re all pretty good, if a little erratic,

But they perform in a way that’s most undemocratic.

Whenever the two women try to emerge from the back

One of the three guys steps forward and goes, “Yakkety yak!”

They step on lines, they interrupt jokes

With a self-serving air that says, “Look at me, folks.”

After a while this becomes a bit of a chore

This isn’t watching a show, it’s watching a war.

An improv team should work together,

Not abandon ship with each change in the weather,

Like the Three Musketeers or the Three Amigos,

Like Stan and Ollie or Iago and Roderigo.

Though perhaps this show might start to grow

If someone at the cafe decides to shovel the snow.

There were ten folks there when I saw this caper,

And the guy two seats down was reading the paper.

As improv shows go, this one blends with the rest.

It isn’t the worst, but it’s sure not the best.

Now, the last game we’re going to play is called “Secret Message Improv.” The following reads like ordinary criticism, but the first letters of every sentence taken together spell out a secret message that will save readers the trouble of perusing the whole review. Ready? Here goes.

Ivan’s Revenge: The Director’s Cut, the latest show from a group calling itself Pavlovisation, resides on the border between inspiration and desperation. Tantalizing the audience with moments of brilliance, interrupted by dreadfully lame humor, the Pavlovians offer an evening of shortand long-form improv games that is, to say the least, uneven.

Saddled with the audience suggestion of “Pez,” the company embarked on a rocky voyage of comedic cleverness and clunkers. Noteworthy among the clever scenes was a wonderfully loopy one about a ridiculously generous Pez dispenser. Other moments were equally unpredictable and intriguingly surreal. There were just as many unfortunate moments, however. A number of the performers did not seem very professional. Bursting into laughter and breaking character were common occurrences. As is the case with many off-night or late-night shows, the cast display a wide range of talents and styles. Demonstrating an excellent sense of character and comic timing is Norah Helling. She is too often out on a limb by herself, however. Her efforts often go unrewarded as less talented performers overwhelm her humor.

On the whole, this is a diverting, fairly decent effort that could probably have benefited from more thoroughgoing comic conditioning. Why couldn’t Dr. Pavlov have refused to feed cast members whose performances weren’t up to snuff?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert E. Potter III.