Hot Monkey Pi

Annoyance Theatre

Dirty People on Ice

Annoyance Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Everyone worries about dreams deferred, but what happens to dreams realized? They too have a way of withering like raisins in the sun. What happens to the rebel when his revolutionary ideas have become part of the status quo?

Take the case of Mick Napier and his cohorts at the Annoyance Theatre. Eight years ago, when Napier et al first started carving a niche for themselves, the improv community was divided into two camps: the Second City clones, who used improvisation only to create Second City-style revues, and the improv aesthetes, devotees of Del Close and pure improvisation who believed in improv for improv’s sake onstage.

Napier and his ragtag company, most of them trained at the Improv-Olympic and Second City, created a third camp, one that had room for improvisers who loved the freedom and spontaneity of improv but who also believed you could use it to create an evening-length script that was not a comedy revue. Coed Prison Sluts, the Annoyance Theatre’s first big hit and their still-running flagship show, is now thoroughly scripted but was originally created through improvisation. Ever since that show first opened, in April 1989, nearly every show at the Annoyance (that didn’t involve the Brady Bunch) has been created in rehearsal by an ensemble of seasoned improvisers. And for a time that was enough, as the Annoyance company–then in full rebellion against the Second City folks, who nicknamed them “The Island of Misfit Toys”–churned out one sassy, iconoclastic, hilarious show after another, with names like That Darned Anti-Christ, Your Butt, and The Miss Vagina Pageant.

For the last few years, however, the Annoyance has been showing signs of artistic exhaustion. Their hit-miss ratio is way down. Their shows seem trivial, their messages inconsequential. The company’s few moments of brilliance, such as Susan Messing’s Emma Peel-like character in last spring’s James Bond parody Fingerball, are lost in the general unfocused messiness that currently typifies Annoyance shows. The tiresome Fingerball, for example, ran three hours without an intermission and yet never managed to tell a coherent story.

Some have blamed the company’s decline on the fact that Mick Napier spent so much time last season in New York, directing Amy and David Sedaris’s play One Woman Shoe and working on the cable comedy show Exit 57. And it’s true that without Napier the Annoyance Theatre has drifted. But as the current innovative but flawed show proves, the problem runs deeper than that. Hot Monkey Pi is the first show Napier has directed since Poo Poo Le Arse two years ago, and like Poo Poo it represents a conscious break from the theater’s usual way of creating shows: Napier and company steal a page from revue-style shows and substitute many settings for the single setting of earlier works.

Napier and the Annoyance’s style of comedy has also changed, with fewer put-downs and fewer punch lines. In Poo Poo they attempted to create an evening of surrealistic or dadaist comedy, not unlike Tristan Tzara’s insanely nonlinear play The Gasheart. Characters in Poo Poo spoke in rhyme, carried huge signs, wore weird clothes, and generally uttered one non sequitur after another. In Hot Monkey Pi Napier creates a hostile, absurd universe not unlike the insane asylum that was the open-ended setting for Poo Poo Le Arse: characters rarely speak or think linearly, and no one really listens to anyone else. To make matters more confusing, Napier’s ensemble doubles and triples roles, filling the play with a bewildering array of characters–born-again Christians, housebound retirees, bigoted butchers, acid-tripping adolescents, suburbanites looking for an angry fix. These characters interact in dozens of short scenes, some of them no longer than a line or two, staged on one or another of three stages and up and down the aisles.

Because Napier is a good director–the Annoyance’s best–he’s able to shape these fragments into an intriguing evening that tugs at the imagination, leading us on with the promise that this apparent chaos will soon make sense. Then he teasingly fails to deliver. Unfortunately, despite the formal innovations–breaking up the show into many small scenes and setting them all over the theater–Napier never manages to address the real source of the company’s artistic crisis: the inability to tell a story worth listening to.

The problem seems to be that the Annoyance was founded by a group of rebellious, creative twentysomethings, and much of their appeal came from their youthful fuck-it attitude and the gleeful way they gored sacred cows and broke all the rules, even the one about needing to tell a story. But sadly, nothing ages more quickly than attitude. These days even advertisers delight in iconoclasm. And all of Napier’s most revolutionary ideas–camped-up gross-out comedy, creating shows from improvisation–have long since been appropriated and surpassed by other theater groups (Cardiff Giant, the Factory, even Second City).

Which leaves Napier and the Annoyance with a dilemma they still haven’t been able to solve: How do you break your own rules? How do you rebel against yourself?

Dirty People on Ice, directed by Scot Robinson, is an evening of long-form pure improvisation that attempts to make full use of the Annoyance Theatre’s huge performance space (formerly a plumbing-supply warehouse). The audience is placed dead-center in the space, and the actors perform everywhere else: in the circle around the audience, on four platforms in the corners of the room, and all points in between.

This arrangement allowed for some remarkable moments, as when the whole ensemble started running around and around the audience, improvising a scene about people jogging. And there’s something wonderfully inspired about asking an audience to turn in circles to follow action that jumps from the northwest stage to the northeast stage to the southeast stage.

The night I saw the show, however, the cast weren’t clicking and a good 80 percent of the improvised scenes were about boring characters going nowhere and taking forever to get there. The few truly interesting ideas that came up–as when Susan Messing started playing a condescending goddess come to earth to help mankind–were squashed beneath the less interesting ideas her colleagues were generating.