CT20 Ensemble

at the Broadway Arts Center


at the Roxy

The CT20 Ensemble enters the Chicago theater scene with six short plays by John Patrick Shanley, the screenwriter for Moonstruck. All six are, predictably, about love; most have some peculiar twist and refer pointedly to the moon.

The evening is divided into two acts of three plays each. In The Red Coat, two Catholic teenagers sitting outside a party work out their terribly innocent feelings about each other. They end up gazing at the moon as it works its powers on them. Down and Out and Out West both poke fun at some of our traditional ideas about romance. Down and Out, which is about love and art, is silly, cynical, and allegorical: the characters’ names are Love and Poet. Another figure, dark and hooded, keeps appearing to demand goods from the poor, starving poet–the first demand is for the poet’s library card, the only thing he has left to live for. But Love protects our self-pitying artiste and gives him back his poet’s soul, which she has locked in a box for safekeeping. In Out West, a cowboy comes to a small town and wins the hearts of two women–a sweet young thing (who feels strange, secret yearnings when she looks out of her tiny window at the moon) and a sleazy dance-hall girl. Nobody knows anything about him except that he’s a cowboy, but that’s all anyone needs to know in this town of cliches.

Act II begins with Let Us Go Out Into the Starry Night, a stylized examination of the emotional monsters we carry with us into relationships and how we get involved despite our fears. In A Lonely Impulse of Delight, a young man brings his best friend to Central Park in the middle of the night and, under the moon and the stars, tells him that he has fallen in love with a mermaid who lives in the lake and comes out only at night. Welcome to the Moon depicts the reunion of four high school friends, three men and a woman, who admit their obsession with each other,

All of the pieces are charming, all nicely combine playfulness and emotional truths. In these six works Shanley views love from a number of intriguingly skewed perspectives, which allows us to enjoy with minimal embarrassment yet another love story. Still, there’s something just a little too cute about the whole premise of the evening.

It doesn’t help that the CT20 Ensemble exudes cuteness. Part of this is simply the group’s youth: they are unable to convey the emotional maturity necessary to the pieces. This really struck me during Welcome to the Moon, in which the characters are said to be around 26. Even though the members of CT20 can’t be more than three or four years younger than that, they couldn’t manage the jump in age.

Director Kevin Theis adds to the cuteness quotient with his trick of hiding the title of each play somewhere onstage. In The Red Coat, for instance, a girl walks into the party with the title pasted on her bag. In Down and Out, the title is on the tablecloth that Love sets out. Theis does employ some interesting stylization during the evening, particularly with Let Us Go Out Into the Starry Night: he incorporates both a mannequin and puppets into the action. His staging is simple yet effective, and he knows how to keep the action moving forward.

Theis is helped out by a generally strong ensemble. Paul Stroili is particularly good, even exquisite in all three of the pieces he appears in, creating a completely new and genuine character for each. Todd Weeks is an adorable, nervous teenage boy in The Red Coat, and while his other characters are not as strong, he maintains an honest charm. Brian Sunday and Sara Nichols both do good work. Ayun Halliday and Ted Koch have a bit more trouble. Halliday is especially grating, making all of her characters odd, cartoonish.

The Serious Art Comedy Show prides itself on its intellectual content, but its six acts, performed by eight men, are not always triumphs of the intellect. They have little apparent connection, except perhaps for the fact that each expresses the artist’s approach to humor.

Each of the six variety acts (for lack of a better word) has its entertaining moments. Jazz Poetry . . . Truth! is a performance-art duo (or parody of such) that sets the tone for the evening. On the night I saw them (apparently they do different pieces on different nights), the two opened the show with a strange little piece involving one actor in a black stretch bag and another on stilts. This first piece (the duo performs intermittently throughout the show) is divided into three titled parts; the titles purposely have little to do with the movement. (My personal favorite ludicrous juxtaposition of title and activity was “Part III–Lincoln Wins Illinois.”)

Throughout this piece, the actors do little more than hop around making noises and smashing things. Although some of their material is out-and-out painful in its sheer stupidity, most is appealingly absurd. They make complete spectacles of themselves, and sometimes that alone is enough to start us laughing.

Bill Ellison is next on the bill with a send-up of beat poets. He uses Jack Kerouac’s reading technique–having the audience call out the number of a page, which he then reads from. As he recites, Ellison accompanies himself on bongo drums. Instead of poetry, however, Ellison reads from Betty Crocker’s Chinese cookbook. He even sets a kitchen timer to let himself know when his time is up.

The next three acts are George Badecker playing and singing his own music, James U-Boat reading his own poetry, and Paul Gilmartin, who is both musician and poet. Of these three performers, Badecker fares the best. His closing number is the result of a silly experience he had as a camp counselor. When he and his fellow counselors did a week-long session with asthmatic children, they changed the words of their regular songs (which were mostly religious) to fit the illness, and the mutation is very funny.

It is significant that the most entertaining of the five, Badecker, spent the shortest time onstage. Almost all of these acts go on too long. None has the strength to sustain the stage time given.

But if you can sit through the first part of the show, you’re in for a treat: the Amazing Howe Brothers, a Chicago phenomenon that actually lives up to its own epithet. The two men perform original satirical songs that are both timely and clever. Most are new lyrics sung to popular tunes, such as their “If I Could Get Rich Off of New Age” to the tune of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” or “Raisa” to the tune of West Side Story’s “Maria.” A wonderful salsalike number, sung from Reagan’s perspective, is called “The Great Communicator.” In the spirit of 50s and 60s folksingers, the Amazing Howe Brothers write up-to-the-minute social and political commentary. Completely at ease with their stage personalities, they never condescend to their audience. Unlike some of the other acts on the program, they actually exploit Serious Art Comedy’s maxim–that the deepest belly laughs originate in the brain.