Beach Ball Productions
at Second City, Skybox Studio
By Jack Helbig
Parody has had a long and distinguished career, going back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Aristophanes satirized Socrates and his followers in The Clouds, and Aristotle makes reference, in his Poetics, to a now lost parodic version of The Iliad recounting a Trojan-style war between frogs and storks. More recently, in 1741, Henry Fielding lampooned Samuel Richardson’s popular novel Pamela in his barbed trifle An Apology for the Life of Shamela Andrews, then set out to spoof Richardson again in Joseph Andrews and ended up creating one of the great comic novels of English literature.
In the last two decades, however, in America at least, parody has been debased and satire declawed. Ailing comic institutions like Mad magazine, National Lampoon, and Saturday Night Live do nothing but churn out laughless send-ups and flaccid barbs. And Second City, once known for its cunning political jabs, has relegated parody to a back burner and all but eliminated straight-ahead satire from its repertoire. The current main-stage show does feature a fully improvised parody of a day of programming on National Public Radio, but that sketch is meant more to highlight the cast’s improvising talents than to poke fun at NPR’s overbearing seriousness. (And thank God it’s the exception! How many fully improvised blues parodies can we take in one lifetime?)
What accounts for the recent decline in genuinely pointed satire? Shortage and overabundance. Too few original comic minds out there, and too many energetic hacks following the same tired old formulas, cranking out cookie-cutter parodies. Too few Tom Lehrers, and too many Capitol Steps.
But happily there are still places in Chicago where originality is tolerated and even encouraged–like the Factory Theater. The company began inauspiciously in 1991 with a pair of Real Live Brady Bunch-style shows: The Corpse Grinders and Reefer Madness, which for all its charm was little more than a screen-to-stage translation of the cult movie. Soon, however, in such wild comic pastiches as Attack of the Killer B’s and Jailbait, Factory showed it was capable of creating parodies that were more than mere instances of copyright violation. Even slight works like Escape From the North Pole, a holiday send-up of Escape From New York, revealed more comic imagination in the first ten minutes than the theatrical Star Wars appropriation at the ImprovOlympic, Jedi!: A Musical Tour de Force, did in two hours.
Factory Theater’s current show, Molly Brennan’s Battleaxe Betty, represents another leap forward for the company. A parody in the sense that Joseph Andrews is a parody, it quickly transcends its roots. Instead of merely spoofing Xena and the current Xena-inspired fascination with fierce female warriors brandishing large swords and clad in skimpy leather-and-metal costumes, Battleaxe Betty revels in the genre. When the women here swagger onstage and bark out terse, witty dialogue, showing their swords at the first sign of danger, they aren’t laughing at Lucy Lawless–they’re laughing with her. And though Brennan’s intelligent, multilayered narrative may mine the characters and stories she created when she was a geeky sword-and-sorcery-loving teenager, she soon leaves the realm of parody behind, delivering an action adventure that holds our attention all on its own, even if we know nothing about Xena or She-Ra or even the ancient myths of Amazonian warriors on Lesbos–and despite Scott Oken’s periodic plot-stopping rock songs. Forgetting about cheap laughs, Brennan manages to craft an interesting story full of fascinating characters, playing a much higher stakes game than mere parody.
Brennan’s wonderfully twisty plot is the stuff of ballads: the rightful new queen of the mythic kingdom Lynowyn, the legendary Battleaxe Betty, has had her throne usurped by the evil Jessica; it’s up to Betty and her ragtag band of followers to win back the crown. The production, which Brennan also directs, is a lively, fast-paced affair full of the flash of swords, the satisfying ching of metal against metal, and lots of thinly veiled references to lesbian relationships.
Danny Robles’s fight choreography would be remarkable in any theater but seems especially miraculous and exciting in the Factory’s intimate performing space. (Those tempted to sit in the front row should think twice.) And as usual at the Factory, the acting ranges from good to superb, with Jenny Kirkland turning in an inspired performance as a high school bitch turned evil-sorceress queen. Amy Seeley as Battleaxe Betty has a wonderful Dudley Doright goofiness about her, though she doesn’t come close to the brilliance of her Adrienne Barbeau imitation in last December’s Escape From the North Pole.
Deep Freeze, the James Bond parody currently playing in Second City’s Skybox Studio Theatre, is another matter entirely. Created by some of the same folks responsible for They’re Girl Crazy, produced about a year ago at ImprovOlympic, Deep Freeze suffers from many of the creative problems that afflicted that underachieving beach-movie spoof.
Great care has been taken to re-create the look of the classic Bond movies. The hero, Peter Stone, always wears a tasteful black tuxedo, while the women in the show favor flashy, flimsy, low-cut, high-hemmed things. But the script is abysmal.
The story–which involves a villain not unlike Batman’s Mr. Freeze, bent on destroying the world with his ice machine–is so like a standard Bond plot, right down to the climax in the supervillain’s supersecret headquarters, that it feels more like plagiarism than parody. Yet the plot’s a damn sight better than the dialogue, which aspires to the sparkling, wry wit of the Bond films but comes across as coarse, dull-witted, and crude. This is the sort of show that tries to wring laughs out of calling a beautiful-babe spy from the CIA “Agent 69.” Dean Martin at his most soused never attempted jokes this lame in the Matt Helm movies.
Of course it’s hard to parody a genre that’s already something of a parody–the Bond films, more than the Matt Helm or Our Man Flint series, always left themselves lots of irony-laden wiggle room. But Factory Theater accomplished it. And you get no extra points for attempting something difficult and failing. Especially when there’s a cunning, intelligent parody of 60s spy movies written by a Second City alum–Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery–playing now at a theater near you.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Battleaxe Betty Photo by Patricia Sutherland, and Uncredited Deep Freeze Photo.