Much as we like to boast about Chicago's long roster of homegrown comedic talents (insert meaningful nod in the direction of Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert), audiences can sometimes forget how deep the local bench is at any given moment. But then every January, the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, which continues through Sunday, comes barreling into the new year on a wave of good vibes and damn-the-torpedoes energy. We all need a reminder of the quality of not-yet-name-brand talent that's out there right now, and the fest consistently delivers. And at an affordable price, no less.
Now in its 11th year, there's no question that Sketchfest, as it is affectionately known, has evolved into one of the city's major cultural offerings (blissfully lacking any self-regard, and as noteworthy for its lineup as Pitchfork or the Humanities Festival) in no small part because it now has a first-rate venue to match its ambitions. A $1.7 million renovation of the old Theatre Building last summer -- the multitheater complex on Belmont Avenue now goes by the name Stage 773 -- has improved the audience experience in key areas.
Several hundred people funnel through the lobby between shows, a scene that in years past has risen to Calcutta-airport levels of chaos, and venturing through the crowd to the restroom has been akin to a swimming upstream in a salmon run. Subtle changes to the lobby's layout, however, have alleviated some of these issues. (It's still crowded, but a certain amount of jostling is part of the fest's appeal.) And friends, let's not forget the bar. Comedy needs all the liquid lubricant it can get, and audiences will be happy to learn that drink prices are significantly lower (the eye-rolling $8 for a Miller Lite, for example, has been halved).
But the real draw, as always, is the quality of the work onstage, featuring groups from Chicago and outposts elsewhere. The schedule this year features 162 shows, giving audiences four options to choose from in each time slot. Performers know to bring their A-game, but inevitably there are a few stinkers. That's to be expected, though it doesn't help when a group changes its game plan at the last minute, as Philadelphia's Camp Woods apparently did on Friday. (More on that below.)
Unlike improv (where nothing is scripted, nothing pre-planned), sketch can be a less risky endeavor for audiences. These groups have been vetted by executive producer Brian Posen and his team, and those invited back each year have spent a good deal of time and energy tweaking their scripted material, layering in various levels of props, costumes and music cues.
This week, Sketchfest will feature an entirely different group of performers than those on hand this past weekend. That's a variety you're just not going to get any other time of year. (I'm hearing good things about Fantasy Grandma, comprised of two 30-ish comedians from New York in full Boca Raton grandma drag; I can also recommend Long Pork, an all-male Chicago group with sharp ideas about how to use multimedia and sound cues.) Shows sell out quickly, so make your plans early. The best way to experience the fest is to catch multiple shows on a single night, as I did over the weekend.
The Other Other Guys: This locally based group is young but insanely confident, and its swaggering sensibility hearkens back to Amy Poehler's time with Upright Citizens Brigade during its early Chicago incarnation, pushing the boundaries of what a sketch show can offer in terms of long-form storytelling. Last weekend The Other Other Guys conceived a sweeping and deadly funny riff on "2001: A Space Odyssey" that unspooled through flashbacks and stand-alone bits featuring each character's back story, including a pair of hillbilly astrophysicist twin brothers (played by a wonderfully knuckleheaded Eric Roth and Eric Siegel, the abrasive yin to Roth's loosey-goosey yang). Chris Blake, the stagehand who helped the performers achieve their zero-gravity effects, found some exceptionally droll moments with his wordless reactions. Directed by Michael Balzer, these top-notch writers and performers navigated that dicey ground between simplicity (using a couple of props at most) and brocaded detail (showing us the inner lives of each character). They perform a brand-new show the first Friday of every month at iO Theater and are worth checking out before their talents take them elsewhere.
Barretta: A mild disappointment considering their advance buzz, this duo (comprised of Chicagoans Carisa Barreca and Kevin Sciretta) was weakest when trotting out old-timey vaudeville gags that never pushed the concept passed the irony. While some of their writing lacked originality and unpredictability, both performers teased out some nicely off-kilter comedic ideas. The best bit had Barreca playing a woman howling through her life nonstop, capturing all that existential angst most of us keep just below the surface. At the show's high point, an audience member was awarded with an old slop sink from the building's recent renovation. "Many an actor's blood was washed in that sink," she was informed. The young woman was seen proudly carting her treasure from show to show later that night in a joke that kept on giving.
Camp Woods: The night was considerably less successful for Philly's Camp Woods, a group that apparently changed its running order at the last minute without alerting its stage manager. The result was a show that felt listless and underprepared. But more damning was the low quality of the writing and the barely-there commitment of the performers. The one bit that made me laugh, a video of a front door "vomiting" through its mail slot, was crass but effective.
Sweat: As IFC's "Portlandia" has proven, there is fertile sketch comedy being generated in the great Northwest, and this new-ish Portland-based group was a standout at creating fully realized worlds. Some of it was dreamily surreal -- a ship's captain marveling at sea porpoises and the like to the score of John Denver's rousing "Calypso" -- but the group's sweet spot is character-based humor. Shelley McLendon (who is, incidentally, the younger sister of Wendi McLendon-Covey, of "Bridesmaids" fame) is Sweat's ace in the hole. She has a Jennifer Saunders-like mutability, serving up knowing performances as an elegantly idiotic mother at her daughter's quinceanera and as the serene, heavily accented woman bemused by the noun "Belieber," as fans of Justin Bieber call themselves. "I'll have a bacon double cheese-belieber," she purrs, trying out a few puns of her own.
The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival resumes Thursday and runs through Sunday at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Prices and showtimes vary; go to stage773.com or chicagosketchfest.com.
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