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Comedy Fri Jan 06 2012

Review: Chicago SketchFest 2012 Day 1 @ Stage 773

With four acts performing on different stages at any given moment, the opening night of the 11th annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival left me with some difficult decisions to make -- especially after walking in with no idea what I wanted to see. By chance, I happened to pick performances by three active Chicago improv groups/performers, and ended up witnessing three very different interpretations of "sketch comedy."

I was under the impression that "Barry Hite: So Very Important" would be a three-man sketch show. However, it was almost completely performed by iO/Second City performer Barry Hite himself, and he did an amazing job blending pre-written one-man scenes with improvised audience interaction. Scenes ranged from a partially improvised Applebee's job interview with an audience member, to a hilariously botched audience call and response with the lead singer of a washed-up '80s Irish cock rock band, to a teacher patiently explaining his favorite diphthongs (two vowel combinations) to a classroom of giggling students.

I loved the attention to detail Hite gave his characters, and his ability to create an entire visual scene with just his descriptions. His "dialogue" was written as if there were other people on stage with him, yet all it took was one line for him to twist the scene in a funny, unexpected direction. Overall, Hite commanded the stage with his presence and brought some very well-written, hilarious lines to life with his fantastic delivery.

It's hard to describe exactly what Sweathearts did. At the beginning, the duo sat down in their bathrobes and announced that they would attempt to do a "sad" sketch show. By interweaving prerecorded narration, song, sound effects, and performance, they went back and forth between increasingly dark, dramatic scenes involving a divorced mother and her fat, depressed son, a couple falling in (and out) of love, breaking the fourth wall to check in with a guy on the side of the stage adjusting a "sadness meter" to monitor their progress, and a "person in Asian mask speaking gibberish" character thrown in to purposely ruin the tone, and wipe the meter clean for the duo to rebuild even bleaker scenes with their other characters.

What I just described should have been a self-indulgent disaster at best. But the duo's perfect chemistry, excellent comedic timing, and willingness to deliberately take as much time as they needed to build and act out their scenes brought some incredible and original humor out of some uncomfortable and (sometimes outright offensive) subject matter. The sheer audacity of their show was impressive, and they were probably my favorite act of the evening.

Unlike the other two groups I saw, five-man "improvised action film" troupe The Stuntmen offered a purely sketch comedy performance. Like their name implies, they had some great high-energy, physical comedy, complete with fake glass, fisticuffs and retro sci-fi sound effects. These were all put to great use in their reoccurring scenes involving the battle between supervillian Lord Thinktank, his incompetent henchmen and his masked, large-fisted superhero nemesis, The Pugilator.

Several of their sketches relied on parodies of genre conventions that I either felt like I had seen before or led to scenes that didn't go anywhere. It was when the group strayed a bit from genre conventions that they had room to be clever -- I particularly liked a scene with God and Adam arguing over his animal companions, as well as their pun-based parodies of Jumanji and "Lost." I thought the show was hit or miss overall, but of the three performances I saw, this seemed to be the one that stayed within the boundaries of what most people would consider "sketch comedy."

In the end, I don't know what impression I would have been left with had I seen any other combination of acts. But if what I saw is a representative sample, Chicago is still a fertile breeding ground for an interesting range of live comedy styles, and I can't wait to see what else SketchFest 2012 will pleasantly surprise me with in the coming days.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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